So You Want To Write A Children's Book
Interview with Antoinette Portis, NY Times Best-Selling Picture Book Author & Illustrator
Who hasn’t dreamed of leaving the corporate rat race, becoming a wildly successful picture book author, a rebel rock star to 4- and 5-year-olds and, along the way, hanging out with Maurice Sendak in Connecticut?
Our friend and former advertising colleague, Antoinette Portis, didn’t just dream it, she’s living it for all of us.
In 2007, Antoinette made her picture-book debut with the New York Times best-seller, Not A Box, an American Library Association Seuss Geisel Honor book, and one of the New York Times Ten Best Illustrated Books of the Year.
Since then she has published nine more books, not including her soon-to-be released, “Hey! Water!”
We sat down with Antoinette in her studio to find out how we can be her.
What led you to where you are today?
I was a creative director and then VP at Disney Consumer Products. My job got less and less creative and more business-oriented. The urge to do my own creative work was building up in me.
I had great perks - good salary, car allowance, business-class travel, but I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” I either wanted to become a site-specific installation artist or a children’s book author-illustrator. Which world was more likely to let a middle-aged person in? Toddlers and kindergartners think everyone over 12 is old, so there you go.
I took several writing classes at UCLA extension. I also joined a writers group that met once a month for several years. Then I took a master class with a highly regarded author and teacher. At the first meeting, I showed a rhyming picture book manuscript I’d worked on quite a long time. She read it, and then flung it (literally) aside, “No,” she said. I held back my tears till I got to my car.
The great thing about having had several successful careers is that you know you can figure stuff out. I knew I could get published -- I just needed to make something good.
I didn't have this confidence earlier in life. When I got out of art school, I didn’t have tolerance for the “no’s”. But that is something that years of experience in the business world gives you: the ability to bounce back from NO.
How did “Not A Box” come to be?
My master class teacher said something that really stuck with me: “Write about something that mattered to you as a child. Something you really connect with.”
People who write picture books have an age that they most identify with - my age group is 4-5. I really connect with them. I get the sense of humor. I get what they care about.
I remembered sitting in our driveway with my brother in a giant cardboard box from the supermarket that we turned into a train. We had tin-can lids glued on as headlights, and we thought we were geniuses.
As an adult, I was standing in the kitchen looking out at the same driveway when it struck me. While we were playing, my mom was probably completely burdened doing dishes, all the work of raising five kids, looking out at us probably thinking what are they doing in that box, get out of the driveway, who’s going to clean that up…
So the tension between an adult’s point of view and a kid’s point of view is something that continually interests me. And children sticking up for their own imagination. I keep writing about that. Children getting that the world they’ve built for themselves has importance and validity and they can stand by it.
Not A Box has a sense of rebellion in it. Adults think it’s about imagination but it’s also about sticking up for your own imagination.
I wrote the text first. The second version of the text is what I mocked up as a dummy. It’s pretty much the way it is in the final book. I knew how I wanted the book to look. I was just starting out as an illustrator, so I kept the drawings simple and clean. I approached the book as a graphic designer.
How did "Not A Box" get published?
I submitted it to two publishers and one agent. I sent hand-made dummies (now everything is digital). Within a few weeks Harper Collins offered me a two-book deal.
They really got behind the book. It was on the first page of their catalog. They created in-store displays. They were going to send me on a book tour. But then my dad got sick. I didn’t do a book tour.
The Geisel Committee called me the day after my dad’s funeral.
Part of their process of choosing Geisel winners was to give the picture books to groups of kindergarteners and then observe their interactions with the books. The kids loved NAB because it was conceptual. It wasn’t talking down to them.
So Not A Box was a 2007 Theodor Geisel honor book (The American Library Association early reader award, named after Dr. Seuss).
How did you become friends with children's book legend Maurice Sendak?
I was one of four Sendak Fellows in 2010. We were the first fellowship. Maurice had been wanting to do it for years. We lived in a house that he owned next door to his house in Connecticut for a month. We would hang out in the barn where he gave these talks. He was such an open guy. He was in therapy his entire life, and now that he was older he wouldn’t hold anything back. It was very refreshing. We were friends. I loved him and he loved me.
Ok, so can you really make a living at this?
There are a few people who get very rich doing this work. Drew Daywalt’s and Oliver Jeffers’ The Day the Crayons Quit was on the bestseller list for years! But it’s like with acting--it happens to a very small number of the people.
The real reason to make children’s books is because you loved them as a child, and love them now and want to interact with children and encourage their creativity.
A lot of people who do this work have day jobs. I’m lucky that my first two books were bestsellers and still provide a decent chunk of my income every year.
Authors and illustrators get what’s called an advance on royalties when they sell a book. The publisher gives you half of the amount when you sign the contract and the other half either when the book is published, or if you negotiate a better deal for yourself, when you turn in final art.
Did you have an agent or negotiate your own deal?
I negotiated the first two deals myself. Since then, it’s gotten pretty hard to get your work seen by a publisher without an agent.
Negotiating was something I’d done in both my advertising and Disney careers. I knew the first offer wasn’t the final offer. It’s assumed that most first-time authors are likely to take any deal offered them because they’re so eager to get published. But I didn’t feel that desperation. I felt like Not A Box was a really good idea that was just dropped into my brain. It was a gift.
At first my editor said that if I wanted a bigger advance, I’d have to give up merchandising rights. This is when I just had to trust that the editor would value the book. And she did. In the end, they gave me merch rights and twice as much as the original offer.
Wow! So what do we do to become a children’s author?
Read at least 100 current picture books. Start with recent Caldecott, Geisel and Boston Globe Horn Book Award winners and the books on the NYT best-seller list.
Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It’s one of the best resources around.
Attend an SCBWI conference in LA or NY. It’s a quick way to get a good overview. Often agents and editors are at the conference looking for talent and will invite session attendees to submit to them within the next month--an awesome shortcut to get your work seen! They also hold portfolio viewings where editors and agents look at your work. People have gotten book deals this way.
Writers: keep your manuscript short. Picture books are maybe 500 words. The shorter the better. Submit manuscripts only, no illustrations required (or desired) by the publisher.
Author-illustrators: submit dummies with rough sketches and a few final illustrations samples.
Try to get an agent. Most houses no longer accept unsolicited work.
If you’re submitting directly to a publisher, do your research e.g., don’t submit fiction to a non-fiction-only house.
Get the Children's Writer and Illustrators Market. It lists all the editors and agents. Most publishers don’t accept manuscripts without an agent.
Do you try to make your books ethnically diverse?
It’s a small thing, but nowadays I give my main characters various shades of brown skin. There are enough books out there showing white-skinned children.
To look at the issue through a larger lens, the We Need Diverse Books movement really got the conversation started with the publishing industry about getting non-white voices out there, telling their own stories. It’s encouraging to see that more people of color are getting book deals these days. Though there’s still a long way to go.
Do you find yourself writing more about girls than boys?
I’ve made a point of putting girls in my books because the default has been to make protagonists boys unless the story is gender-specific to girls. The common wisdom was that boys wouldn’t read a book if a girl was the main character. That’s less true these days, but I still want to make a point. We’re all humans here!