I am thrilled—over the moon, in fact—to have Susanna Leonard Hill here to chat about her new book, Moon’s First Friends (Sourcebooks, June 2019), illustrated by Elisa Paganelli. You may have noticed its radiant glow on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. (Congratulations, Susanna!)
Here’s an excerpt from the NYT Book Review:
The book “sparks lunar interest with an age-old approach: Put a face on it. This cheerful title introduces a rosy-cheeked, eye-lashed ‘Queen of the Night Sky,’ lonely after 4.5 billion years of silvery bright solitude. Elisa Paganelli’s textured digital artwork extends the winsome story with a cozy version of space, a soothing, star-speckled blue rather than bottomless black, and watched over by the eager, anthropomorphized “queen,” who cheers as the Eagle lands right between her eyes.“
Many PBB regulars already know Susanna from her fabulous website, which is jam-packed with resources, fun writing challenges and lots of encouragement for picture book writers. She also offers online writing courses and manuscript critiques. If you haven’t visited, be sure to spend some time there. Later, of course—after our chat!
So, let’s get to it. Welcome, Susanna!
SLH: Thank you so much for having me here today, Linda! It’s such an honor to be on Picture Book Builders.
LA: We’re excited to have you! So, let’s start at the beginning: What sparked the idea for this story?
SLH: This story was sparked by something I never thought would happen. (Is the word “miracle” too strong?) I received a message through my website from an editor who loved Can’t Sleep Without Sheep and was wondering if I’d be interested in writing a fictional story about the moon landing to celebrate the 50thAnniversary, which at that time was 3 years away. I said YES!
LA: I love how you made the Apollo 11thmission more kid-friendly by imagining it from the moon’s perspective. How did you decide to tell it this way?
SLH: I’d like to tell you that I sat down in a most professional manner and did some extremely productive brainstorming and objectively evaluated a long list of the fabulous ideas I came up with as a result and chose this one because I thought it had the most potential… but honestly the minute I was asked to write a story about the moon landing I thought I wonder what the moon thought of all this? I mean, here were all these people, so busy with their flight experimentation and rocket building and space capsule testing, determined to reach the moon, while the moon looked down and watched it all… I was pretty sure she’d have thoughts and opinions. The idea of making her a character, and having her be female instead of the traditional “man in the moon” just appealed to me right away. Then she needed a stake in the story, a reason to care about what NASA was doing, so I decided maybe she was lonely up there in the sky and longed for a friend.
LA: The book arrived this June, just before the 50thanniversary of Neil Armstrong’s famous moon walk on July 20th, 1969. Perfect timing! Given how long and complicated the illustration/publication process can be, that’s not easy to achieve. Was that pub date always the goal? Can you give us a sense of how the timing worked?
SLH: Yes, that pub date was always the goal. I wrote the book in the summer of 2016, about 3 years before the projected publication date. Elisa was chosen to illustrate at about the same time, while there was still plenty of time for her to work without being too down to the wire. So the story and art were done in a timely fashion without undue haste.
Sourcebooks is fantastic to work with. In addition to having a schedule for getting all the parts of the book done and adhering to it, they put a lot of effort into packaging and presentation and promotion. For example, my original title for the story was Moon Dreams (because the moon dreamed of having a friend and the astronauts had dreams of going to the moon), but Sourcebooks thought The Moon’s First Friends sounded more kid-friendly and got the idea of friendship across, and that the tagline of How The Moon Met The Astronauts From Apollo 11 would give an indication that there was some factual information involved with the book as well. But then I think they decided that second part was a bit of a mouthful and not as kid-friendly as the first part, and someone got the great idea of making it sound like Neil Armstrong’s famous words and the final title ended up being MOON’S FIRST FRIENDS: ONE GIANT LEAP FOR FRIENDSHIP. As you can see I had nothing to do with changing the title – that was all them. Also, someone at Sourcebooks had the fantastic idea of including the QR codes on the front and back endpapers that take you directly to NASA’s audio files of the Apollo 11 lift-off and Neil Armstrong saying his famous words and that was just genius! (And again, not me!)
LA: So interesting! You do a great job of simplifying the technical stuff to appeal to young kids—as in this rocket ship spread, for example:
But you’ve also got lots of great information in the back matter for those who want to dig deeper, as in the spread below. Can you tell us a bit about your research process?
SLH: Actually, that part was kind of funny. I knew all along I wanted some factual back matter so that kids could learn a little more to go along with the story, and maybe teachers would be able to utilize the book in their classrooms. Originally, the idea was to include stars of American space flight. So I researched and wrote up simple 1 or 2 sentence “bios” that told the important contributions 11 astronomers, engineers, mathematicians, astronauts etc. made to the eventual moon landing, including Robert Goddard, Katherine Johnson, and Ham the Chimpanzee among others. But then that got scrapped, and Sourcebooks asked me to write back matter on 5 other topics. In the end, I think 3 of the topics I wrote were used, with Sourcebooks supplying the material on space suits as well as an expansion on the section of how multi-stage rockets work. Since Apollo 11 was a NASA project, I did most of my research through NASA sources – they have a lot! And as far as simplifying technical stuff, I’m not the brightest star in the sky when it comes to scientific info, so I tried to write in a way I could understand… which, it turns out, is about the level of the average 5 year old.
LA: Looking at your publication list, I noticed you’ve done a lot of books with Sourcebooks. You also have an adorable board book series with Little Simon. Many of us would love to have long, multi-book relationships with editors and publishing houses. Can you tell us how these came about?
SLH: I wish I could give you a recipe for multi-book relationships, but I’m not sure I have one. I think I have to give the credit to my fabulous agent and friend, Liza Voges, who gets my manuscripts to the right editors and has worked tirelessly to build me a career while I sit at my sunny kitchen table and write whatever I feel like regardless of where it might (or might not!) fit into the market, and hand her plenty of manuscripts that are hopeless drivel that she tactfully lets me know she will not be sending out, and who consistently believes in my work more than I do. And it’s probably partially due to the kind of books I write. I have 7 titles with Little Simon which were sold to 4 different editors over the course of nearly 20 years. Many of them have to do with vehicles, and they are all board books or novelty books (2 are lift the flap, 1 has a novelty cover, and 1 is a pop-up.) And it’s probably also partly luck. Aside from that, the timeless advice to write the best books you can write is all I can offer. So… not very helpful! Sorry!
LA: In addition to writing lots of books, you offer an incredible range of resources, contests, classes, reading lists (and more!) for writers on your website and blog. On behalf of the PB writing community, thank you! BUT, as I asked fellow super-achiever Laura Purdie Salas: How the heck do you do it? Do you have some organizational guide you use? A superfood or supplement you swear by? What’s your secret?
SLH: You are making me laugh! If you’ve got an organizational guide, PLEASE share!!! I could really use one! My desk…and kitchen counter…and kitchen table… are “arranged” in layers. I locate things by approximate geographic area and depth – there’s a kind of divining rod-like skill to it. I have lists of my lists. And I write notes and reminders all over my calendar – thank goodness for those reminders you can set – they have saved me many times from forgetting I have a blog post to write! If my kids hear me say one more time that I have critiques to catch up on or I really want to write a new class one of these days they will probably need some restorative time in a spa to calm down. So, no. I have no secrets. I just do the best I can and feel like I’m always playing catch up and never actually caught up! As for super foods, obviously I swear by kale.
I can’t even say that with a straight face. I hate kale. The super food of super foods is and always will be CHOCOLATE!!!!
(And also a sincere thank you for your kind words about my website and blog and such – I so appreciate them! – and I’m glad if anything I offer is helpful to other writers!)
LA: Well, I meant it! (And apparently I’m eating too much kale and not enough chocolate.) SO . . . we love peeking at book creators’ work spaces. Where do you do most of your work? Can you share a photo or two?
SLH: Seriously? You want to see the mess I just described? Okay. Just remember, you asked for it. I will share in hopes that it makes all your readers feel very good about how tidy and organized they are!
LA: I think I just heard a collective “Awww” from my fellow dog-lovers. (But those two are serious couch-hoggers—sheesh!) But back to writing . . . What fuels your creativity? What depletes it?
SLH: Writing fuels my creativity. The more I write, the more ideas I get, and the more I want to write. Beautiful places, new experiences, and doing fun things with people I love are also creativity boosts. Also walking/running/hiking/horseback riding – I get a lot of ideas while I’m outside wandering about in some way or other.
Life stuff (the not so good kind) depletes my creativity. Creativity requires a lot of energy – more than it seems it should – and when I’m weighed down by the hard things that come along sometimes I find it very, very hard to write at all.
LA: I think we all can relate to the life stuff. One last question: What’s up next book-wise?
SLH: I have a new Christmas book coming out around October 1. It’s called DEAR SANTA and was fabulously illustrated by John Joseph. I also got to write a book for Sesame Street (Sesame Street!!! How fun is that?!) which is called DREAM and comes out November 5. Both are from Sourcebooks.
Thanks so much for visiting, Susanna. It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you!
To win a copy of MOON’S FIRST FRIENDS signed by Susanna, leave a comment below. I’ll announce the winner in my October 15th post.
And, finally . . .
The winners of TAKE YOUR PET TO SCHOOL DAY from last month’s post are Judith Wright Alpin and Wendy Wahman.
As always, thanks so much for reading, everyone!