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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Susanna Leonard Hill

It is my great pleasure to be a stop along Susanna's Blog Tour for her third book to be released this month - The Road That Trucks Built. It releases TOMORROW (7/25). On Friday - Be sure to swing over to Vivian Kirkfield's ( review of The Road That Trucks Built for #PPBF.

Don't forget, Susanna's first blog tour for When Your Elephant Gets the Sniffles and When Lion Your Needs a Bath is still ongoing - be sure to swing over to: Laura Sassi Tales - (7/24); Polilla Writes - (7/25); and A Penny & Her Jots - (8/3). And check out all the other stops for this tour:

NOW for the reason we are all here today - drum roll - Susanna Hill:

Susanna is an amazingly generous, caring, and talent person. She has touched the lives of so many writers with her "Would You Read It Wednesday" & "Perfect Picture Book Friday" (#PPBF) posts and your Valentiny, Halloweensie, & Holiday contests. I first met Susanna when I took her "Making Picture Book Magic" online course. Then I stumbled upon her #PPBF posts. They were so much fun and introduced me to many picture books I hadn't read yet, new releases and a few treasured favorites. But it took six months until I finally got the nerve to publish my website and write my first #PPBF post.

I finally got a chance to meet her in person at the NESCBWI conference this spring. Guess what? She is twice as delightful in person! Without further ado, let's welcome Susanna Hill.

Susanna, thank you so much for stopping by to chat about your books and writing.

ME: So, tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

Susanna: I began my writing career at age 4, lying on my stomach on the kitchen floor, writing on the back of my parents’ legal document drafts with a green crayon and asking my mom how to spell things. Nowadays I spend less time on the kitchen floor, but I still like to write in the kitchen. I have an office (I won’t show it to you lest you faint from horror at the mess) but it’s sunnier at the kitchen table. And I have a theory that my brain is solar powered. So… kitchen table it is. Plus there’s the added bonus of proximity to the coffee maker.

I really love to write first thing in the morning, but I seldom get to because that is also my best time for exercising and I need to be at my barn job between 8 and 8:30 and even though I get up at 5 there is only so much you can squeeze in. So I usually end up writing later in the morning… or sometimes, these days, rather late at night.

My favorite kind of book to write is picture books. That is usually what I aim for. Sometimes they turn out to be board books, but they almost always start as picture books. I would LOVE to write a novel… let me rephrase that…I would love to write a GOOD novel, I’ve written a few that should be used for hamster bedding, but I have a lot to learn before I’m capable of producing a Because of Winn Dixie-quality book!

ME: Not sure if proximity to the coffee outweighs the proximity to chocolate?

This summer you have three books coming out about the same time. Two boards books, by Little Simon, When Your Elephant Gets the Sniffles and When Your Lion Needs a Bath. And a picture book, The Road That Trucks Built. Congrats! Is it harder for you to write picture books or board books?

It’s funny that you ask that. As I mentioned above, I almost always start with the intention of writing a picture book. I usually submit with that intention as well. But sometimes editors have a different vision. This was the case with When Your Lion Needs a Bath and When Your Elephant Has the Sniffles which I wrote as picture books but which turned out beautifully as board books – I totally love them and applaud the editor who saw what they could be. But we had a chuckle when the Publishers Weekly review said the writing was “picture book worthy”…since that was my original thought for them and we both agree that there shouldn’t be any qualitative difference in the writing.

When it comes down to it, a good picture book could be just as good as a board book – many classic picture books have now been produced in board – and a good board book can be a good picture book. It’s not so much a difference in the quality or type of story as it is of format. A board book has the advantage of being sturdier for little hands (and mouths) and often less of a financial investment for parents. Lion and Elephant cost $7.99 as opposed to Punxsutawney Phyllis or Can't Sleep Without Sheep costing $16.99. So ultimately, I sit down to write the best story I can, and if the editor sees it as a picture book, we go with that. If s/he sees it as a board book, we go with that.

Now, novelty books like Airplane Fright and Freight Train Trip are another story (no pun intended). Those I wrote intending that there be flaps to lift and reveal surprises. I made suggestions, but ultimately it was the editor’s choice and she, in many cases, chose different things than I had imagined, but those are editorial calls.

When did you start writing these three books? How long did it take to find a publisher for them? [Curious about her agent? Read how Susanna got her agent -]

Oh, gosh… Trucks I wrote quite a few years ago… Like all of my rhyming stories it took a little while to write. As I mentioned in my interview on RhymeRevolution, to me writing in rhyme is a little like doing a puzzle. You have to find the right combination of words to move the story forward while keeping to the rhyme and meter, not sounding awkward or forced, and not padding the story with extra lines just to make the rhyme work! It’s challenging but fun! Lion and Elephant took about a day each to write the first draft… but the finished book you see represents about draft 50. (Okay. Maybe not 50. But it was a lot.) So there was a fair amount of adjusting and tweaking and generally monkeying about until I got them how I wanted them. They also took a little extra time because they’re part of a series, so they have to be similar enough in structure and rhythm to feel like they belong together, but different enough that you don’t feel like you’re just reading something formulaic.

Trucks went out a couple times and was passed on… then didn’t go out for a while…then went out to the editor who eventually bought it, but he wanted some changes to the ms, and being a very busy editor it took him a while to get the editorial notes out, so about 8 months went by… then he loved the new version… but was leaving the house he was at and moving to Little Simon. So he asked if he could take the ms with him. My agent and I said, yes, of course. Then another year…and a half… went by…. I think by the time it finally sold he had had it close to 3 years. So, that one wasn’t too quick, but I don’t mind waiting for a great outcome with a thoughtful, talented editor! J And I think it says a lot about his enthusiasm for the ms that he wanted to hold onto it even when moving houses, and that means a lot to me.

Lion and Elephant along with 3 other mss in the series went out twice before going to the editor who bought them, but it was still a little over a year between their first outing and getting sold.

ME: Susanna, what an amazing trip Trucks had. Just shows what a blessing patience and persistence can be and that good manuscripts win, eventually.

As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

Hmm… if we’re talking picture books, I don’t know that I had a favorite author or illustrator. I didn’t think in those terms. But I loved Make Way For Ducklings, Blueberries For Sal, Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel, The Frances Series, Harry The Dirty Dog, and lots of others! Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Series, though not technically picture books, were among my very favorites. If we’re talking chapter books and up, I loved The Little House Series, the Anne of Green Gables series, Nancy Drew, and everything that had anything to do with horses.

ME: We would have had so much fun hanging out in the library together!

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Well, let’s see… After the KidLit411 interview my pogo-sticking prowess is no longer a secret… what else???

I guess a lot of people don't know I was adopted. My sister and I got a lot of mileage out of this when we were kids - it even still happens sometimes now. My parents would introduce us to acquaintances from work, or after church, or at a Christmas party or something, and the adult being introduced would look from me to my sister and say, "I can see the family resemblance!" This cracked us up to no end, because we look NOTHING alike! (Except we do both have blue eyes.) She is tall and thin. I am neither. She has brown hair, mine is blond. Her face is narrow, mine is not. And she is polite, and I was the one who on more than one occasion responded wickedly to the adult in question, "That's funny. I'm adopted!" Really, I was a dreadful child. It's a wonder my parents didn't send me back!

How did writing The Road That Trucks Built differ from writing Can’t Sleep Without Sheep or your Phyllis books? How does it differ from your first book The House That Mack Built?

Well, Trucks is a process book – a kind of how-to. It shows how a bunch of big trucks work together to build a road, step-by-step. Because it’s written for youngest readers, the steps are fairly simple. And it’s written in rhyme, so there was that element. Trucks is actually quite similar to Mack because they are part of the same conceptual series, although I have since re-written Mack in a different form.

Can't Sleep Without Sheep and the Phyllis books are all prose, and they are not process/how-to books. The Phyllis books are holiday-oriented (Groundhog Day and April Fool's Day) and feature a strong female character who has a lot of self-confidence and proves her ability in spite of resistance. Can't Sleep is a sillier book, more consistently humorous, and is neither a how-to nor a holiday story, but based on my son’s inability to calm his spinning mind and fall asleep at night.

In case you don’t know, Susanna offers an amazing class. With both interactive and self-study options, called - Making Picture Book Magic ( When did you start offering your class? Do you find it helped your writing, as well?

I started offering my class in February 2013. I think it helped my writing and my process a bit to have to break the ideas down and figure out how to present and explain them in a coherent way to other writers. The class also involves a fair amount of evaluating and critiquing, so that is a good opportunity to strengthen my own understanding of what does and doesn’t work and why. On the other hand, the class takes a good amount of time to teach and that’s time I’m not writing… so from that standpoint it might be less helpful… or maybe it just forces me to be more efficient.

ME: Personally, I am grateful that you offer the class. I found both the instruction and your feedback to be amazing and helpful. I have spoken to many others who feel the same way and have taken the class multiple times. NO, I was not paid to plug the class! :-)

Where does the inspiration for your stories come from?

I have 5 children, and I think it’s fair to say the majority of my inspiration comes from them. But some of it also comes from my own wild and misspent youth.

What's something you want your readers to know about The Road That Trucks Built?

I originally wrote it for my son, who was completely fascinated by all manner of heavy equipment as a child. He was 3 when I wrote it, so that was the age group I aimed for. It was conceived as part of a 3-book series, and in each book 5 or 6 different big TRUCKS work together to complete different projects. The stories showcase those delightfully gigantic trucks while showing the process of building something and the teamwork required to get the job done. I originally thought it might be an interactive book with pop-ups or flaps or parts that moved, but it came out beautifully as a picture book (with a totally awesome wheel on the cover that you can actually spin around!) P.S. And lest you think that I only write stories for my son, since he got mentioned twice in this interview, I do frequently write stories for and based on my daughters as well – Lion and Elephant among them!

Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I just finished up When Your Monkey Won't Go to Bed (and Daniel Wiseman will be getting right to work on the cover art which is very exciting and so fun!) I’m waiting for editorial comments on back matter to finish up a book for Sourcebooks that’s due out in Spring 2019. And after the book launches and blog tours are done and I have a little more time to think, I’ve got a couple mss I need to polish up to send my agent.

Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you’re glad you didn’t know at first?

I’m not sure there’s anything I’m glad I didn’t know. I love the whole writing and publishing process and was eager to learn as much as I could about it. But I think something I would have liked to know is that when a manuscript is rejected there is a long list of reasons why – many of which have nothing to do with the quality of your writing or your story – and that rejection isn’t personal and is often subjective (when it’s not because they already have a too-similar book on their list or something like that.) Because I think a lot of us would agree that rejection is the hardest part of the business. It can erode your self-confidence and discourage you. It makes some of us give up. If we can understand that sometimes a manuscript just really isn’t a good fit for a certain editor’s list, that’s a lot easier to cope with than thinking your writing is worthless!

ME: Thank you Susanna. This is very helpful. Rejection is one of the hardest parts of this business and not knowing "why" is the hardest part of all.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

I love all animals. I really do. I’d like to be friends with a goat. They’re so appealing, don’t you think? Although I’ve heard they have a penchant for trouble, so I’m not sure I could handle owning one. I think armadillos are pretty cool with that whole rolling up in their armor thing…and I have a definite fondness for groundhogs. But if I’m going to be honest (albeit boring and unoriginal) I’ll admit that dogs and horses are tied for my favorite. Dogs because they’re so honest and kind. They love unconditionally and are always happy to see you whether you’ve been gone 5 days or 5 seconds! And horses because they’re beautiful and strong and graceful, but also because they are so comforting. They just exude peace and calmness and it makes me feel good just to stand near them and touch their satiny coats and velvet noses and breathe in their warm, horsey smell (no, not the smell of their stalls, the smell of themselves!)

Thank you, Susanna for adding me to your busy blog tour. It was wonderful to spend a few moments with you today!

Thank YOU so much for having me here today, Maria. Such an honor and privilege! I am most grateful for your enthusiasm for the blog tours and book launches and your generosity in helping to share my new books with your readers!

To find out more about Susanna Hill, or get in touch with her:

Making Picture Book Magic (online picture book writing course):

Be sure to enjoy and comment on each blog post along this tour!

A special prize will be raffled off among anyone who comments on every single blog tour stop, so don't miss a single fascinating installment!

And don't forget to share on social media. The hashtag we are using to promote the book is #trucksontour. Every time you share a post on Face Book, Twitter or Instagram using #trucksontour you will get an entry into a raffle where 3 winners will each get a $25Merritt Bookstore and Toystore gift card.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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