To say that Jody Jensen Shaffer likes to keep herself busy is an understatement, as you’re about to see. I only met this talented writer a couple of years ago, when she graciously allowed me to hitch a ride from Kansas City to NerdCamp Kansas and back again. Ten minutes into that four hour drive time, and I knew Jody was going to be my new friend. Whether she wanted to or not. The fact that she’s another perfect example of a picture book writer who thinks OUTSIDE THE BOX? Icing on the cake. Read, and be inspired.
Jill: How did you get started writing picture books, Jody?
Jody: I started learning how to write picture books after my youngest child began kindergarten. My kids and I had spent hours reading great mounds of library books, and I wanted to try my hand at writing them. My training came from repeated readings of much-loved titles like The Day the Babies Crawled Away (Peggy Rathmann), All the Places to Love (Patricia MacLachlan), and How I Became a Pirate–“The meat!”–(Melinda Long), among many others. I was also writing lots of poetry for children’s magazines.
Jill: Ha. I could have written that reply myself and just swapped out the book titles, Jody. Except my magazine stuff didn’t come until I’d been handed a few pic book ms rejections and decided to back up the truck to try magazine poetry. I know those magazine pieces–those small successes and affirmations–must have been satisfying and also made the whole idea of moving into books sound appealing and possible. So how long were you submitting book manuscripts before you got that YES we all hope for? And once you got your foot in the door, did everything go smoothly and according to your master plan?
Jody: I had some rewarding early success with magazine poetry, which gave me the
misguided impression that I could write confidence to try writing picture books. A few years later, I attended a Highlights Foundation workshop on writing picture books and met an agent who sold one of the manuscripts I’d taken to be critiqued. I was thrilled! Then, as these things sometimes happen, the publisher retired, the company sold, and my contract was cancelled. Boo! I soon signed with an agent and began to get contracts that stuck!
I’ll also mention that while I was learning how trade publishing worked, I was writing educational nonfiction, too. These rewarding projects taught me everything I know about leveled readers, meeting publishers’ guidelines, sidebars, back matter, etc, and I enjoyed learning about the subjects I took on.
Jill: Boo is right! Talk about taking the wind out of a new writer’s sails. But yay that sticky contracts soon followed! Those educational nonfiction projects certainly sound serendipitous … Could you tell us how you’re currently using some of what you’ve learned in your own projects?
Jody: Sure. For instance, when I write creative nonfiction, like A Chip off the Old Block, which is about Rocky, a rock with big dreams (fictional), I include back matter (nonfiction), too. In Chip, the back matter focuses on rock types, real rock formations, and puns, all of which are part of my story. Educators use the back matter to extend learning about Earth, geology, rock types, and literary devices.
Another thing writing educational nonfiction has taught me is how to level my text. Leveling text means determining the reading level of what you’ve written. (Writers don’t typically do this for trade picture books—since adults are reading the books to kids—but leveling is THE ENTIRE WORLD for educational nonfiction. Are you writing for third graders or fifth graders? Their reading levels vary a lot.) To level a text, I copy and paste it into the Magic ATOS Machine, and it tells me if I’m writing above, below, or right at the grade level I want. While not typical for picture books, this kind of leveling IS sometimes useful when you’re writing early readers, because those books ARE being read by kids, and you don’t want to discourage new readers with text that is too hard for them.
Jill: Great strategy. I’ll admit leveling is something I rarely think about. A recent work-for-hire educational project, though, reined me in and forced me to do so. I enjoyed that challenge … while also feeling a little Aw, c’mon. I can’t use the word glistening?
I’ve been asked by other writers, both published and unpublished, why I “still” do work-for-hire projects…as though I should have graduated beyond those after landing a “real” book deal. Have you come up against this negative attitude toward work-for-hire writing? How do you feel about it?
Jody: Glistening is a superb word! Use it in your next picture book, okay? I’ve never personally come across an author who was unwilling to branch out to other formats or do work-for-hire. Here’s my take: if I have the time, if the project sounds interesting, if the pay is adequate, I do it! Why? It keeps me busy (and out of my agent’s hair!), and it’s good writing practice, a bit of income, and allows access to new editors and publishers. What’s not to like?
Jill: AGREED. I think I once went a whole month without bugging my agent when neck deep in a complicated NatGeo project. Pretty sure she appreciates anything that distracts me.
Jody, you’ve just launched a glistening new series! Woot! What appealed to you about series work? How did you get into it? And what’s a Puzzle Reader?
Jody: I see what you did there, Jill. 😉 Thanks! I’m excited about this series with Highlights Press. Remember earlier when I mentioned that writing opportunities give one access to new editors and publishers? I was in a picture book critique group years ago with Michelle Budzilowicz, now an editor at Highlights Press. The critique group has dissolved, but Michelle and I kept in touch. She reached out to me about sending a sample for a new fiction early reader series with puzzle elements. They liked what I sent and signed me up to do five more! Two will be released in the fall of 2021 and the final two in the spring of 2022. These puzzle readers have hidden letters for beginning readers to find.
Jill: More serendipity! It continually astounds me how often this kind of thing happens in our small world of children’s book publishing–thank Heavens! You must be beside yourself to have these titles releasing one after another. And what a cool concept! Jody, you’re a terrific example of a versatile picture book writer who thinks and works OUTSIDE THE BOX. What’s next for you, friend?
Jody: Aww, thanks, Jill. Yes! You never know when someone will email you out of the blue! I’m always working on several things at once—right now that means picture books and more early readers—and we’re out on submission with more projects, with our fingers perpetually crossed.
Jill: Eerie how our lives are running parallel right now. Last question: Any tips for writers who would like to break into the educational market?
Jody: Visit your library and check out a bunch of these books. Familiarize yourself with the books’ publishers and elements—timelines, sidebars, whether they’re written in straight nonfiction or in a narrative style, etc. Then create a 1-page sample of the kind of writing you’d like to do (maybe a book on dinosaurs leveled at second grade). Send your resume and sample to book packagers and educational publishers. [Ev Christensen has some great resources here http://evelynchristensen.com/writers.html.] Then, perpetually cross your fingers!
Thanks so much for having me, Glistening Jill!
Jill: No, thank YOU, Jody. This has been both fun AND inspiring. BEST of luck with the puzzle reader series!