Story to Contract: A PBB Reader’s Incredible Journey

Today I’m thrilled to celebrate the success of one of our faithful Picture Book Builders readers, Traci Sorell, who just sold her first picture book! YEA! I first met Traci through our blog when she won a free manuscript critique by me after commenting on my Sept. 8, 2015 post. Every writer’s path to publication is unique, so I thought it would be inspiring to hear Traci’s journey to publication.

Traci (who is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation) has kindly offered to answer a few questions about her writing experiences and upcoming picture book, WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA, which she recently sold to Charlesbridge.

First off, Traci, can you tell us when/why you decided to start writing, and a bit about your early years when you first started writing?

I decided to start writing for children in the summer of 2013. I have collected picture books since the early 1990s, particularly those featuring indigenous cultures. Having cycled through my books and those at the local library, I could not find any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son. There were many books featuring our ancestral stories like THE FIRST STRAWBERRIES by Joseph Bruchac, others spotlighting revered historical figures like SEQUOYAH, a Cherokee-English bilingual Sibert Honor Book by James Rumsford, or, of course, those chronicling other well-known events like the Trail of Tears – but none showcasing contemporary life. My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is one of the largest in the U.S. with over 300,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about us in today’s world to share with my son?

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So I realized that I needed to start writing. I had written in my academic, legal and professional life, but never for children. So I contacted Ari Berk, a friend from graduate school who has written many books including NIGHTSONG, the 2012 picture book illustrated by Loren Long (S&S). He gave me two marvelous pieces of advice: 1) Join SCBWI immediately after our call; and, 2) Finish a manuscript and get it out in the world. He shared how he knows lots of superb writers, but many fail to finish their work, have it critiqued and send it out on submission. So that was the best first call I could have made. I followed his advice and it has opened up a world of wonderful connections with amazing people in this industry.
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Also, since then, I am thrilled to say that there has been a contemporary Cherokee picture book written by a tribal citizen and published within the past year! Sandy Tharp-Thee’s THE APPLE TREE, illustrated by Marlena Campbell Hodson (Roadrunner Press), was a 2016 Oklahoma Book Award finalist in children’s books. It is written in English and in the Cherokee syllabary, so it’s a truly bilingual book. That is SO encouraging!

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Where did you get the idea for WE ARE GRATEFUL, and can you tell us a bit about that story’s path to a book contract?

I read a lot of picture books from my local library, generally 10-30 every week and that have been published within the last three years. I find lots of inspiration and examples of what not to do. I loved the structure and concept in Joanne Rocklin’s 2015 fictional picture book, I SAY SHEHECHIYANU, illustrated by Monika Filipina (Kar-Ben). It follows a child’s first experiences through the four seasons as a new sister, going to school, etc. with her saying the Jewish blessing “Shehechiyanu” each time something new is experienced.

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While there is not an equivalent blessing in Cherokee that is said each time something new is experienced, there is a culture of expressing gratitude daily and throughout the seasons. So I wrote a poetic nonfiction picture book that starts in fall when, similar to the Jewish religion, the Cherokee New Year occurs. It shows contemporary Cherokee children expressing gratitude for the blessings but also the challenges they encounter in each season through their culture. Otsaliheliga [oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah] is the English phonetics for “we are grateful” in Cherokee.

I actually wrote WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA last fall after winning a free Skype critique from you, Suzanne, through this blog! I briefly panicked that I did not have a nonfiction manuscript. You have written so many fantastic nonfiction picture books, so I definitely wanted you to evaluate my best work. I had roughed out some items under each season, but I’ll be honest – I gave you my first complete draft to critique. Your feedback was on point and definitely strengthened the manuscript. Then when you emailed me the day after the Skype critique to tell me you woke up thinking about my manuscript, I thought, What?! At that point, I knew I had to submit it.

In mid-December, I submitted to one editor I met through the SCBWI Kansas fall conference and through the unsolicited submission process to nine other publishers. Three expressed interest in the manuscript pretty quickly. I was floored and ecstatic. I sold it from the slush pile to associate editor Karen Boss at Charlesbridge in mid-March.

I have admired Charlesbridge’s picture books for a long time. In 1994, they published Daniel Pennington’s fictional picture book, ITSE SELU: CHEROKEE HARVEST FESTIVAL, about the Green Corn Ceremony and illustrated by Don Stewart, which integrated the English phonetics of Cherokee words into the text. That book is still on the backlist, in both hardcover and paperback. I love that! When I saw the use of phonetics, I knew I wanted to do the same in my story to enhance the Cherokee culture being shared. Plus, it didn’t hurt when my editor, Karen, wrote, “I don’t think your manuscript needs all that much in the way of revision!” What a gift! I know I may never hear that again in this business, so I cherish it.

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What do you think has helped you improve your writing most?

Taking it seriously. I experience learning, growth and humility daily. My husband has been a strong source of support along with my family, friends and fellow Cherokee citizens. All that has made a huge difference.

Reading picture books published in the last 2-3 years and being aware of what the trade publishing industry is currently producing is critical to knowing how to place my work out there and to knowing what is missing/needed on the shelves.

Critiquing the work of others has been invaluable in helping me to see strengths, patterns and weaknesses in my own work and to process the critiques I have received. Also, recognizing that my best and most thorough critiques usually come from published authors. They have already been where I’m trying to go.

Attending workshops and conferences and reading well-recommended craft books feels like giving myself a low-cost MFA. I’m beyond lucky that Kansas has an excellent regional SCBWI conference every fall and the recent Wild Wild Midwest SCBWI conference in Chicago was phenomenal. Plus, I got to meet and visit with you in person! Last summer, I gained a lot of confidence over two craft-intensive weekends with superb faculty at Jill Esbaum and Linda Skeers’ Whispering Woods Picture Book Workshop in Iowa and Pat Miller’s Non Fiction for New Folks Conference in Texas.

Moving forward, knowing there is a “tribe” for me in the kidlit world helps tremendously. This spring, I attended Kweli’s annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York. Listening to Edwidge Danticat’s keynote and the other brilliant speakers from across the industry encouraged me in ways I cannot put into words. I met Joseph “Joe” Bruchac (Abenaki Nation), the most prolific Native author in children’s literature, with more than 100 books published and numerous awards. What an honor! It lifted my spirits immensely to spend the day with Joe and find six other aspiring writers who are also tribal citizens – each working to widen indigenous representation across all genres in children’s literature. What an unexpected source of encouragement!

Native writers at KWELI Conf in NYC Apr 9 2016

Last, what advice to you have for other picture book writers who are trying to break into publishing?

Be grateful. Every day. If you approach your creativity and the process of writing from a place of gratitude, it opens you up. You will be more aware of story ideas, available to hear critiques that improve your craft, and connected to others around you in the kidlit world. Gratitude opens up receptivity. There are so many wonderful, giving people in this field. Stay close to them and avoid the naysayers who say it can’t be done. To those coming from historically marginalized communities, be brave and write your stories.

Read picture books – fiction and non-fiction – published in the last 2-3 years. Figure out what you like and don’t like about those books – subject matter, structure, word choice, rhyme/non-rhyme, etc. What’s missing? What can your voice and your experience add to the field? Write from that place.

Write. BIC (“Butt in Chair”) is real! You have no stories to share for critique, to submit or to publish if they never get written. Get busy.

Lastly, Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen) sums it up best for me: “Craft over career. Story over vanity. Courage over fear.”

Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience and for offering the free Skype critique via this blog. That made all the difference on my path to publication!

And many thanks to you, Traci, for sharing your journey with us! It was so great to finally meet you in person at the SCBWI Wild Wild Midwest Conference two weeks ago! (I also got to meet fellow PBB bloggers, Jennifer Black Reinhardt, Pat Zietlow Miller, and Jill Esbaum!)

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Traci & Suzanne at WWM Conference          PBBs: Jennifer Black Reinhardt, Pat Zietlow Miller, Jill Esbaum, Suzanne Slade

Suzanne Slade

Suzanne Slade

Suzanne Slade is the author of more than 100 books. A mechanical engineer by degree, she enjoys writing about science topics and fascinating, little-known facts about historical figures. Recent picture books include: The Music in George's Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue (4 Starred Reviews!), Friends for Freedom, With Books and Bricks, The Inventor’s Secret (2017 NSTA Best STEM Book, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt), and Out of School and Into Nature (Sleeping Bear, 2017). Coming soon -- Dangerous Jane (Peachtree, 2017), 2979 Days (Peachtree, 2018), Astronaut Annie (Tilbury House, 2018), and The Daring Dozen (Charlesbridge, 2019). Learn more about Suzanne and her books at: www.suzanneslade.com

87 Comments:

  1. A wonderful and encouraging interview – thank you!

  2. WOW, Suzanne and Traci, this was a fascinating read, and oh, so inspiring! What a whirlwind ride, Traci. So excited for you!!! 🙂

  3. Congratulations to you, Traci! I so look forward to reading this. Thank you for sharing your story with us! Thanks, too, Suzanne!!

  4. This is an inspiring, detailed account of how it can be done. Congrats on this book and the advice to be grateful.

  5. Thanks for this very inspiring post, filled with practical advice too. And reminders to practice gratitude at all times. All the best, Traci! I look forward to reading your book!

  6. Congratulations, Traci! Thanks for sharing your story and good advice.

  7. Patricia Nozell

    What a lovely legacy for your son & your tribe & a wonderful new picture book for all of us.

  8. Lindsay Hanson Metcalf

    Yay, Traci!!!! This is such an important book and I am thrilled that it is finding its way into the world. So excited for you!

  9. Congratulations, Traci! I’m so excited for you!! Thank you, Suzanne, for highlighting Traci’s journey. Very inspiring.

  10. Wonderful interview! Congratulations on your forthcoming book and finding a need and fulfilling it!

  11. Traci, Congratulations on THE APPLE TREE! Thank you for sharing your writing journey. I love the Cynthia’s words, “Craft over career. Story over vanity. Courage over fear.”

  12. What a neat story – so much to learn! Thanks for sharing it BOTH of you. 🙂

  13. Congratulations! Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  14. How wonderful! Congratulations, Traci! Charlesbridge sounds like a perfect match.

  15. Kim Pfennigwerth

    Congratulations Traci! I loved reading your path to getting published and thank you for sharing the advice that helped you!

  16. Wonderful interview Suzanne. Love the story about your road to publication Traci! And Cynthia’s advice, “Craft over career. Story over vanity. Courage over fear.” is spot on. I know your ancestors are proud! Your story will educate and inspire. Your voice is now part of the wind. Otsaliheliga!

  17. Congratulations Traci! I’m extra excited seeing you write about having attended the Kansas SCBWI. Our family moved out here and have been bugging me to join. I am so looking forward to sharing your book with my little ones. We are a multi-lingual and multi-cultural household and are always excited when we get to learn about other languages in the text of the picture books too! Congratulations!

  18. What a motivating interview! So glad for you Traci and loved hearing the details of your story. Cynthia’s quote is a treasure too and thanks for sharing that bit of wisdom..

  19. Determination, Grit, and Gratitude. Amen.
    Congratulations!

  20. Traci, This sounds like a wonderful book and I am excited about getting it to read.
    As my Niece, I may be just a bit prejudice
    for you.
    My Mom, your Grandmother always taught gratitude to her children and loved to write. I like to think it’s “in the genes”. 💟

  21. My Gratitude Network post today popped up right before this terrific and inspiring post: “The meaning of life is to find your gift; the purpose of life is to give it away.”
    You TWO are living proof of this sentiment…..on so many different levels!
    Thank you for sharing your story. I can’t wait to read Traci’s book.

    • I’m so glad you stopped by, Esther, and thanks so much for your encouraging words. YOU have inspired me through the years. I am grateful to have found you and Traci on my writing journey!

  22. Congratulations, Traci! And thank you for sharing your advice for breaking into publishing—helpful and inspirational.

  23. Good for Traci for fulling that void in contemporary Native American stories!

  24. Great interview, Traci! I’m so happy for you!

  25. Thank you for the inspiring post Suzanne! I love Traci’s advice: “Be grateful. Every day. If you approach your creativity and the process of writing from a place of gratitude, it opens you up . . . Gratitude opens up receptivity. “

  26. Thank you Traci and Suzanne for this wonderful information and advice. I have long been fascinated by the stories and courage of Native Americans. Attending a Pow Wow several years ago was exciting. A road trip last year through the Southwest introduced me to several Nations. I hope to have an opportunity to spend time at future events. I love that this beautiful picture book is available for children (and adults), and I look forward to reading it.

  27. Congratulations Traci. What a journey! Jill and Linda’s class was great. Best of luck with your writing career. I can’t wait to read your story.

  28. How encouraging! Thank you for sharing. I like this question: “What’s missing? What can your voice and your experience add to the field? Write from that place.”

  29. Traci, fantastic interview & inspiring story! Many congrats on the sale of this wonder ful manuscript!! Love ya bud!

  30. Absolutely thrilling! Congratulations on your commitment, hard work and success! I look forward to celebrating the release of WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA!

  31. What a great story; so happy for your success! May you continue writing the stories you would like to see in the world.

  32. Thank you Traci and Suzanne, for this wonderful story of a journey well traveled. And thank you for the inspiration. I wish you all the best and can’t wait to read this wonderful book.

  33. Learning, growth, humility and gratitude–so much wisdom here. Congratulations, Traci, and thanks so much to you both for sharing this journey with us. Very inspiring.

  34. Congratulations, Traci! And thank you for inspiring everyone with the details of your journey to publication. I agree that your initial advice from Ari Berk was spot on!

  35. I love the reminder to BE GRATEFUL. 🙂

  36. Thanks, Traci, for sharing your journey. You are an inspiration!

  37. Charlene Steadman

    Congratulations Tracy! So excited and inspired by you!

  38. Shirley Angela

    Absolutely wonderful! Inspiring and truly a blessing! May you receive many more joys! Thanks for sharing.

  39. Ever so thrilled for you, Traci! Thank you for this wise and useful post.

    I’m so grateful for the children’s writing and illustrating community. And thank you, Suzanne and all the Picture Book Builders, for sharing through this blog.

  40. Traci, this is a really nice, informative piece. Thank you for sharing your experiences in detail, and congratulations on your publication!

  41. Wonderful interview! Inspiring!

  42. So glad you liked the post, and thanks for stopping by!

  43. Thank you for the inspiration and gentle reminder to be grateful.
    Best of luck to you Traci! 🙂

  44. It’s time I get my non-fiction back out into circulation! So inspiring! And you’ve given me some more ideas on how to pitch it. Very helpful.
    Thanks,
    Susan

  45. How fun that I just happened to see your blog link on Cynsations! I’m not in the PB world but what Traci said rings true for all kid-lit writers. Gratitude and BIC are essential! Thanks for the interview…and congrats, Traci!

  46. Congratulations, Tracy! Such great advice!

  47. This is a wonderful post, thank you Suzanne! (but not feeling flapper attire might be the best fashion direction for me?) And huge congrats to Traci!

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