Talking with Barbara Kerley (page 3)
Talking with Barbara Kerley
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4
  Did you have to worry about having illustrators for your books or does the publisher find someone for you?

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

No, it’s not a writer’s job to find an illustrator. That’s part of the editor’s job, and with good reason. They have files of portfolios and years of experience working with many different artists. I think one of the things editors like best is being able to bring their vision of the story to life, working with the illustrator of their choosing. And there are other factors that can play into this, too. For instance, Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic, sent The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins to Brian Selznick partly because she knew he’d do a wonderful job (and, in fact, he did such a wonderful job that he was awarded a Caldecott Honor for the book), but also because he’s well known and well respected. Often an editor will pair an unknown — like me — with someone better known — like Brian — to help a book gain some momentum.
  Do you have an agent?
  No, and it’s something I go back and forth on. In general, I think agents aren’t as necessary in the children’s field as they are in the adult field (though this is changing). I may get one at some point, however, because I really don’t like the business side of writing and am not very good at it. (When I was a kid, the only thing I didn’t like about Girl Scouts was selling those darn cookies . . .) Alternatively, I know writers who don’t have agents but do hire a lawyer with experience in book contracts to do their negotiating for them. So that’s another option.
How did you get your newest book published, then, without an agent?
  I wrote the text for A Cool Drink of Water first, then started looking for a publisher. National Geographic did an excellent job of finding photos that captured the spirit of the text.
     I did have to modify the text a bit. For example, the line “Sipped from a thin tin cup” originally read “Sipped from a chipped tin cup.” When I wrote it, I envisioned one of those enamel-covered tin cups (the kind folks take camping in America, the kind I saw all over the place when I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal — and which always seemed to have some of the enamel chipped off). National Geographic found a wonderful picture of an old man sipping from a tin cup, but it wasn’t chipped. So that line needed to be changed.
     I also ended up doing quite a bit of work when it was time to write the captions for the photos. (At the end of the book, there is a map showing where the photos were taken and a caption for each photo.) Jennifer Emmett, my National Geographic editor, sent me boxes of back issues of the magazine — I had little stacks all over my office floor — which I read through looking for the best tidbit for each caption. So all that was written after the book sold.
     When you’re first starting out in the children’s field, it’s very common to write a book and then look for a publisher. Now that I have more experience, however, this has changed a bit. For instance, my upcoming book with Scholastic Press (about Walt Whitman in the Civil War) was sold after I submitted a two-page proposal. I had already researched enough to know the broad outline of the story, but had a lot of work left to do before I even started writing. However, my editor there liked the idea so much that she offered me a contract. So I wrote the book knowing it already had a home. And my next book with National Geographic (about parents and children around the world) was actually their idea. They approached me with it and then I wrote the text.
     It’s taken me years to get to this point, however. Now I doubt I’d begin a new project in the future without at least some enthusiastic interest from an editor — even if I didn’t have a contract.
  Do you have any more practical advice for RPCVs who want to write books for children?
  Well, as with any kind of writing, I think it’s important to be realistic. Some folks think children’s writing is “easier” than adult writing because the books are shorter. Personally, I don’t think it’s easier, any more than writing a really good poem is easier than writing a short story, just because there are less words in it. So anyone wanting to be a children’s writer should bring the same professionalism to it that they would to writing for adults.
     To me, this means working hard, trying to keep improving your craft, and educating yourself about the field.
     Hard work requires regular, sustained, and disciplined effort, and it takes time. Improving your craft includes revising (and then revising again), getting feedback (from a critique group, a writing class, or if you’re lucky, an editor) and then acting on that feedback. Educating yourself is twofold: getting to know the latest kids’ books (spend time in libraries and bookstores); and getting to know the field by paying attention to who is publishing what and, perhaps, joining a children’s writing organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ( It’s probably the most established group for children’s authors, and you don’t have to be published to join.
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