It isn’t easy to get a picture book published, especially with a Big Five house. It’s also tough to have a second book come out in close succession to the first. That’s why I just had to talk to debut author Katelyn Aronson, who has a whopping FIVE picture books coming out in the next two years. Read on to find out how she did it.
LL: First, let’s talk about your debut, Piglette. One of the many (MANY!) reasons why I’m so excited for this story is because we share the same amazing editor, Viking’s Tamar Brazis. Tell us more about the book!
KA: Yes, Tamar is a wonderful editor. It’s an honor to be working with her!
Piglette is the story of a little pig, born on a farm in France, yet utterly uninterested in the piggish antics of her siblings. She has an acute sense of smell, and prefers spending time in the pasture, memorizing the scent of every flower. Convinced she doesn’t fit in on the farm, Piglette leaves home in hopes of finding her perfect place in the world. She follows her snout to a perfumery in Paris, where she thinks she’s finally found paradise…
I’m thrilled to report that Viking asked for a sequel to Piglette, and Piglette’s Perfect Plan is already set to release next year!
LL: That is terrific news—I’m squealing with excitement! Your other two announced titles, Clovis & The Bullies in The China Shop and Poo-Dunit? A Forest Floor Mystery sound adorable as well. What should readers look forward to with these stories?
KA: Clovis is the story of a bull who has inherited his late granny’s china shop. He prides himself on caring for all his delicate porcelain wares. But he’s also a former linebacker with an explosive temper, and when old rival players come back into his life, Clovis must do all he can to resist the familiar urge to charge.
Poo-Dunit? is about a mouse who wakes to find a smelly pile of poo outside her home. She immediately starts interrogating the entire neighborhood in order to find the culprit. It’s a rhyming, giggle-fest of a mystery, but it’s also a fable that asks that existential question: What do we do when life dishes out poo?
LL: Let’s go back to the beginning of your author adventures. How long have you been with your agent, and how many polished manuscripts did you have ready when you queried her?
KA: This May, I will have been with my agent (Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis) for 4 years. I believe I had 9 manuscripts when I queried her. I also showed her a list of all my ideas for future stories.
LL: What did the submission process look like? Did you go months between sales, or did it all happen pretty quickly?
KA: I had been writing seriously (obsessively!) for a year and a half when I signed Christa. So that first step happened quickly, and maybe gave me some unrealistic expectations about how fast my career would launch from there. Once I was in the agented query trenches, though, things took time. It can be hard to break in as a newbie, especially if you’re aiming for big houses, which we were. Total silence eventually grew into complimentary rejections. But at the time, it seemed that everyone was buying/selling non-fiction and biographies, and that’s just not what I was writing.
I fell into despair, and came close to quitting on several occasions. Then, quite suddenly, it’s if my agent and I reached a tipping point. We sold five of my manuscripts in a single calendar year. Four of them to big houses and one to a mid-sized. A “tipping point,” I’m convinced, can come at different times for different people, for reasons that can’t always be explained, let alone controlled. I’ve never gambled, but I imagine selling a manuscript is a little like playing a slot machine: How many times do you have to spin those reels before the right combination of *what you do best* + *what a certain editor loves* + *what the market wants at the moment* aligns, and you finally win? Who knows! Because, while talent counts, getting all the right elements to align is also a matter of timing and random chance. The more you play (and by “play” I mean produce a ton and query a ton), the further you tip the odds in your favor.
LL: Who are some of your favorite picture book authors? Are there any who have inspired your own writing?
KA: WAY too many favorites. So I’ll limit myself to three:
As I child, I loved The Jolly Postman by Janet & Allen Ahlberg. It was sheer glee reading all the enclosed letters addressed to different fairytale characters! I also loved books by Barbara Cooney. She told such beautifully moving stories, and my favorite was Island Boy.
Today, my favorite author/illustrator is K.G. Campbell. I collect his books, my favorite of which remains The Mermaid and The Shoe. It’s my idea of picture book perfection—from the language, to the illustrations, to the soul of the story. It is luminous in every way.
LL: Oh, man—The Jolly Postman! You’re taking me back to my own childhood.
What advice would you give to other writers who aspire to become multi-published with big-name houses?
KA: First, a short answer: A lot of people will tell you: “Read, read, read.” But I say: “Write, write, write.” Of course, reading other authors is of utmost importance. But that isn’t the same as actually practicing your craft and honing your voice. So, after a while, put down the books, the how-to’s, and the webinars, and just write.
Now, here’s a long answer: To attract a big house, it helps to have a title/premise that is “high concept,” while at the same time telling a story of universal truth. That means your story should 1) immediately appeal to a wide audience (a quality some attribute to “commercial” works) but also 2) have substance, striking a universal chord of truth that resonates with readers (a quality some attribute to “literary” works). The first one attracts your readership. The second one makes your story endure in readers’ hearts, and hopefully, makes them want to revisit the world you’ve created over and over again.
If, like me, you love writing character-driven fiction, then bringing an endearing main character to life is key to attracting a big house (or I suppose any house, for that matter). My blog has a few tips on Writing Endearing Picture Book Protagonists.
LL: One last question: where can readers go to follow your writing journey and learn more about your books?
KA: Other than my blog, (where you can read about the inspiration behind Piglette), there’s always social media! Stop by and say hi :).
Thank you so much for the chat, Laura!
LL:Thank YOU, Katelyn! I’ve pre-ordered my copy of Piglette, and for any readers who want to join in the perfumery fun, you can do the same via the links below. (As independent booksellers are being hit particularly hard in the wake of COVID-19, please consider purchasing your copy from IndieBound.)