By Ruth Spiro
In 2003, I sold my picture book, Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist, to Dutton (Penguin) following a manuscript critique at the SCBWI Annual Conference. It was the first manuscript I ever submitted, and was acquired by the first editor who read it.
Before you begin launching rotten tomatoes at your computer screen, you should know that if the rest of my publishing journey had been this easy, I wouldn’t have much helpful advice to offer here. (And I do!)
Five years, three delayed publication dates and two illustrators later, my debut was finally published in the fall of 2008… Just in time for our economy, and the entire publishing industry, to take a nosedive. Two months later my editor left, leaving poor Lester Fizz an orphan. A Series of Unfortunate Events, indeed.
I continued to write and submit picture book manuscripts, receiving many “good” rejections, but no contracts. It was frustrating, but I was buoyed by the success I found through my freelance writing, placing articles in magazines including FamilyFun, CHILD and The Writer, as well as several Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Fortunately these markets paid, so I spent more time writing magazine articles and doing school visits, fitting in my picture book writing when I could.
In the fall of 2010, I found inspiration for a board book series in the pages of The New York Times. “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children” (www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/us/08picture.html) was a controversial article that made the rounds in the publishing community and sparked an idea for me. I spent the next year researching my topic and writing, and in 2011 began submitting a proposal for a series I originally called Baby Loves Quantum Physics. Due to the unique nature of the series, my proposal package included research on the market and competition, along with manuscripts for three titles.
First I submitted to a few agents, then directly to editors. While I received a surprising number of “good” rejections, many expressed hesitation to take a chance on the offbeat concept. There wasn’t anything else out in the market as a basis for comparison.
Through 2012 and into 2013, I continued submitting my proposal to a small, targeted list of editors. I was also submitting other picture book manuscripts, doing school visits, writing magazine articles and essays, and teaching a writing class. (In addition to some part time employment and taking care of my family!) One day, feeling my creativity was being crushed by the stress of multiple deadlines, I had my “Aha” moment – I realized I’d been spreading my efforts so thinly among various projects that I wasn’t excelling at any of them. I had some serious thinking to do.
In my heart, I wanted to be a Children’s Book Author.
In my head, I began formulating a plan to make it happen.
I’d assumed that having my first picture book published would open doors for me but really, it hadn’t changed a thing. I decided that I could best accomplish my career goals with the help of an agent, so I could focus on writing and hand off the submissions and other business to a professional. I started collecting articles, interviews, and information about those who might be a good fit for me and my work.
As I read about the agents, I learned they would expect to see not one, but several submission-ready manuscripts. I also realized that my favorite manuscripts had already made the rounds to a long list of editors, so an agent wouldn’t be interested in taking them on. If an agent agreed to represent me she’d want new, fresh manuscripts to submit.
In the fall of 2013, I created a road map: I would not submit any manuscripts or commit to any school visits for an entire year. Instead, I would focus all my available writing time on creating a brand-new “body of work.” Then, when I had five new picture book manuscripts ready, I would begin querying agents.
This new mindset turned out to be liberating; I was free to create and experiment with my work, without the pressure of researching editors, writing cover letters, or worrying about receiving rejections. I became so productive that when I read Jane Yolen’s announcement about her inaugural Picture Book Boot Camp in March, 2014 I decided to reward myself and apply. To my amazement and delight, I was accepted – I’d be staying in Jane’s home with the opportunity to submit two manuscripts for her to critique and discuss with me when I arrived!
A few days before I was scheduled to leave, I received an email from Alyssa Pusey at Charlesbridge, one of the editors to whom I’d submitted the Baby Loves series proposal nine months earlier. Assuming it was a rejection, and not wanting to spoil my good mood, I didn’t open it. I didn’t open it the next day, either. The message sat in my inbox for nearly a week.
When I finally opened the message, it wasn’t what I expected. Alyssa asked if the series was still available, as she wanted to share it at an acquisitions meeting. Good news, but this had happened before so I wasn’t getting my hopes up. I continued to polish my manuscripts, and contently proceeded with my plan.
But the Universe had other ideas for me. A few weeks later, Alyssa followed up with news that she would be making an offer on my series!
I’m a fan of Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, in which he states that “good luck” occurs when preparedness meets opportunity. This was my opportunity and fortunately, I was prepared.
I pulled out that folder of agent information and sent emails to my top six choices, letting them know I had an offer pending. Four replied almost immediately, requesting the series proposal as well as any other available manuscripts. Of course, having spent the previous ten months in serious writing mode, I had quite a few ready to go. By the end of the next week I had three offers of representation, and ultimately signed with Susan Hawk of Upstart Crow Literary.
In the eight years Susan and I have worked together we’ve been busy. The first two books in what became the Baby Loves Science series, Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering and Baby Loves Quarks, were released in 2016. As of today there are twenty-one books in the series! The newest is Baby Loves Photosynthesis on St. Patrick’s Day, which just came out.
In my spare time (Ha ha!) I’ve also written a picture book series, Made by Maxine and Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever. Maxine is a creative and persistent character who uses her STEM skills to solve problems and make things better.
A few words of advice:
Don’t be in a hurry to submit. Many new writers finish their first manuscript and then immediately begin submitting to editors and agents. As someone who has ready many first manuscripts, I can say that few are submission-ready. Yes, I sold Lester Fizz quickly, but I had been working on it for two years with my critique group.
Take classes and connect with other writers. Children’s Book Academy has excellent offerings and an impressive track record. You’re already here, so that’s a good indication of your commitment to improving your craft!
There are many roads that lead to publication, and I’ve traveled more than a few. (Some turned out to be dead ends!) But just as you’d set off on a trip equipped with a map, a spare tire and a full tank of gas, you should have a plan for your writer’s journey, too.
Like many writers, I have inspirational quotes tacked above my desk. Here’s one of my favorites:
“Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there.”
-Henry Wheeler Shaw, 19th Century American Humorist
The Baby Loves Science series is published by Charlesbridge and illustrated by Irene Chan.
The Baby Loves Political Science series is published by Charlesbridge and illustrated by Greg Paprocki.
The Made by Maxine series is published by Dial and illustrated by Holly Hatam.
Ruth Spiro is the author of the bestselling Baby Loves Science books, the groundbreaking original series introducing big ideas to the littlest listeners. These innovative board books encourage a natural sense of wonder in a research-based, age appropriate and engaging way. The series has been praised by The Los Angeles Times, NPR, TODAY, Popular Science, Working Mother, and more.
Her STEM-themed picture book series, Made by Maxine, is about a creative young Maker who knows that with the right mix of imagination and recyclables, it’s possible to invent anything. The second book in the series is Maxine and the Greatest Garden Ever, named a “Best STEM Book for 2022” by the National Science Teaching Association.
Ruth lives in suburban Chicago, Illinois.
For a chance to win a copy of one Baby Loves Science book of your choice (U.S. mailing addresses only) or a picture book critique (up to 500 words):
I have a new website, I hope you’ll take a look and sign up for my newsletter while you’re there!
We are so excited to be mixing things up at CBA, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome new bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with editor/art director, & CBA Director Mira Reisberg PhD who is handing her Mondays over to awesome former now tradtionally pubbed students to widen their audience.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays feature funny Aussie author Sharon Giltrow sharing awesome Aussie books.
And 5th Mondays will feature Libyan American author Koloud Tarapolsi sharing wonderful diverse books.