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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Alison Donald

Today, I have the pleasure to introduce you to a picture book author, whose award-winning book is debuting in the United States tomorrow. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, Alison now lives in Farnham, UK with her British husband and 3 young children. In a great endorsement for SCBWI, she states that "after years of scribbling story ideas on envelopes and scrap paper, [she] finally joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI-BI) in 2014 and with their support, her writing took off."

Her debut book, The New LiBEARian, was originally published in the UK in August 2016 and won 2nd Place at the Winchester Writers Festival 2015, the Margaret Carrey Scholarship with SCBWI-BI, was shortlisted for the Sheffield Children's book award 2017, and was selected as a book for the Summer Reading Challenge, 2017.

Happy Book Birthday!

Welcome Alison Donald. Thank you so much for jumping the pond to chat about your books and writing.

My pleasure Maria. As you already know I am Canadian, so I couldn’t be more excited about The New LiBEARian debuting in North America on January 9th.

ME: 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?)

I write at home after my kids are in bed or sometimes I write in a café because I love having some background noise when I write. I have been writing picture books for four years now and so far, I only write picture books.

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

I loved Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl and Judy Blume. Once I turned 11 or 12, I moved on to Stephen King and more grown up books. I would have loved all the middle grade and young adult books that are available today. There is so much choice now.

I know what you mean. So many great ones exist now. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Hmmm… I had a pet lovebird named Kermit when I was a teenager and he used to sit on my shoulder.

How fun! Your second picture book, The Pirates of Classroom 3 (October 2017), your debut US release of The New LiBEARian (January 9th), and your next picture book AdoraBULL (March 2018) are releasing within 2-3 months of each other. What has that been like? Would you do three books this close together again?

Well, it was actually a little more spread out than that.

My debut book was The New LiBEARian and it was published in August 2016 here in the UK. That gave me 13 months to get to grips with author events, and social media, before Pirates in Classroom 3 was published (here in the UK) in October 2017. And now, AdoraBULL is coming out very soon in March 2018 here in England.

It has been great having books come out relatively close together. I love doing events and it has just meant that I can offer more variety now at events.

That's a very good point and a great way to look at it. Have your books published in the order that Maverick acquired them? Was one of these books easier or more challenging to write?

Yes, my books were published in the order that Maverick acquired them. I think The New LiBEARian was the most challenging as it was my first book and I needed more editorial support than I did with the others.

Where does the inspiration for your stories come from?

I pluck ideas from everywhere: Tv, movies, snippets of conversation, jokes, random thoughts, and things I observe.

The idea for The New LiBEARian came about when I was participating in Tara Lazar’s Storystorm. For anyone who isn’t familiar with this it is a free group you can join, where you try to brainstorm 30 story ideas in 30 days. A participant wrote a writing prompt (thank you whoever you are!) that said, ‘The Librarian is late….’. I thought that this was an exciting idea.

With Pirates, I wanted to write something that took place in the sea and my ideas started from that point.

With AdoraBULL, my family gets a lot of credit.

My daughter pointed to the door and said, "a door, a bull, adorabull." I loved the concept and quickly wrote it down. Add to that, that my husband grew up on a farm in the North of England and he told our kids about his favorite bull called Alfred. Both of these ideas came together with the story of Alfred and Tom in AdoraBULL.

Kids are such the greatest inspiration. What's something you want your readers to know about The New LiBEARian?

The New LiBEARian celebrates the magic of libraries. For me the library was always a magical place where I could escape from everyday life and get lost in stories. I hope that other children can experience this too.

I felt this too as a child. A place to experience new things and a place to escape. I think Alex Willmore masterfully captured the heart of your story in his illustrations. While it’s not an absolute roadblock, in the U.S. it is recommended that you obtain an agent. As an author in England, do you need an agent to submit to publishers?

My publisher, Maverick Arts, accepts unsolicited submissions and I was lucky to be picked out of the slush pile. It is very helpful to have an agent in England too; but not essential.

Lucky indeed. But talent played into your next two books being purchased as well. After creating The New LiBEARian, how much, if any, collaboration occurred between you and Alex Willmore on AdoraBULL?

I am really lucky to work with an independent publisher (Maverick Arts). It’s a small team (but growing) and they really pride themselves on championing new authors and working as a team. I felt very lucky to get the opportunity to provide input at various stages of the project. It was a great learning experience and I couldn’t be more pleased with the final result!

I was able to finally meet Alex in person when we attended the Sheffield Book Awards Ceremony in England in November 2017. It was really cool to sit with Kim, our Editor / Art director, and Alex and look at cover ideas for AdoraBULL. Normally all correspondence occurs over email so that was a real treat!

What is the hardest thing, for you, about writing picture books? Do you have any advice for beginning authors?

I think most picture book writers would agree that the hardest part is coming up with an original concept that has a great hook and a unique selling point. My advice for beginning authors is to keep a notebook handy and jot down ideas every day. Never get too attached to an idea and always research if it’s been done before. If so, scrap it and start again. Having a critique group is invaluable for feedback on drafts. Also, read, read, read.

Great advice Alison. Flexibility and critique partners are important for all writers. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I do have more work with Maverick Arts in the pipeline! I’m not able to spill the beans about it just yet but it is exciting so watch this space!

I am excited to see what you produce next. 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 absolutely love writing picture books and I’ve been lucky to have a positive experience with my publisher. It’s great working with a small team and I’ve loved every bit of it.

Perhaps one thing that I didn’t quite grasp at the beginning was how much time and effort authors need to put into publicity and events. It can be tricky to divide my time between events, publicity, and writing. It’s a constant juggling act… but a fun one.

Is there something that you wished someone would ask you?

Well, you haven’t asked about my day job. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and I work with children with special needs. Working with kids is rewarding and fun and I think it helps with my writing.

So, in addition to juggling events, publicity, writing, and a family, you add in an important emotional day job. You are amazing! What is your favorite animal? Why?

Gorillas. I find them fascinating. In fact, I’m writing a picture book about one now…

Thank you, Alison, for sharing with us a bit of yourself and your new books.

Thank you, Maria.

Be sure to check out the #PPBF review of The New LiBEARian this Friday.

To find out more about Alison Donald, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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