I had the distinct opportunity and pleasure to meet and study with Jill Esbaum at the Whispering Woods Retreat in Iowa, last summer. In an amazing picture book focused weekend, Jill and Linda Skeers work with a small group of writers to study, critique, work, and learn about the business. If this sounds amazing to you, this year’s dates are May 4-6 (3 days) and July 16-19 (4 days).
A multiple award-winning author, Jill Esbaum has written over 30 children's books. Her picture book - I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! - was the 2015 Crystal Kite Award winner, Midwest Region, SCBWI.
Welcome Jill Esbaum.
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?)
Jill: I write in my office, mostly. My brain seems wired to perk up only when I park my butt in that particular chair…although I often have crazy ideas whap me awake at 5 a.m., when I’m least expecting them. I’ve been writing for 21 years now. I must be having fun, because the time has flown.
My favorite type of book to write is a character-driven, humorous picture book. Writing those feels like play…except for the times I’m tearing out my hair.
We love your "crazy ideas" and it's fun to hear writing described this way. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Can’t imagine what that could be. I rarely censor myself. If there’s something people don’t know, they have only to ask.
Where did the inspiration for How to Grow a Dinosaur come from?
While writing a dinosaur book for National Geographic (Angry Birds Playground: Dinosaurs) I was continually astounded by what we now know about them. Researching dozens and dozens of species, searching for those with unique characteristics, set so many ideas loose in my head. So many dinosaurs, so little time!
First came T. Rex. That book was If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party. I think what inspired How to Grow a Dinosaur was remembering how eager my older son had been for our second child to arrive, way back when, so he’d have a buddy to play with. Little did he understand that a baby’s arrival did not an instant playmate make. HTGD is being marketed as a guide for big brothers- and sisters-to-be.
We can never get too many of those, especially when they're humorous. As the first “how to” picture book you’ve written, what was your greatest struggle in writing this picture book?
I can’t say I struggled with this one. I had a blast thinking up the baby-centric things an older sibling would have to learn while he’s teaching a baby how to be. Then I just tweaked the text until each of those first pages made me laugh. Endings are usually difficult for me, but this time, I knew what the final page would be, so that was much less sweat than usual. I just had to hope an editor would get what I was trying to do — and find an illustrator who also got it.
That isn’t to say the final product is the way I’d first imagined. When I sent the manuscript, I suggested showing the parallel between a dinosaur family and a human family on alternate spreads. For instance, on the “Babies don’t know what’s dangerous!” page, a dino kid could be steering Baby away from a cliff, followed by a wordless spread showing a human kiddo steering a toddler away from the top of a stairway. Trying to do too much, obviously. My brilliant Dial editor Jessica suggested that, to avoid confusion, we focus only on the dinosaur family. She was right. As usual.
I love hearing a book's creation story. So, how does the writing or its conceptualization differ for How to Grow a Dinosaur from your other humorous books (like Frankenbunny, Elwood Bigfoot, & Tom’s Tweet)? Do you see a common theme in your humorous books?
It was a LOT easier, honestly. The others mentioned are character-driven. HTGD has structure, but it’s more plot-driven, meant to be a tongue-in-cheek(ish)-how-to for older siblings.
Theme: My focus often settles on themes of loneliness/odd friendships, unpredictable sibling dynamics, and powerless characters finding their voices. If it’s true that writers plumb the depths of their childhoods, then I must’ve been a painfully awkward kid with no friends and a rotten sibling. That isn’t an accurate picture of my childhood. But I believe those feelings are universal, at some point. We’ve all felt marginalized, lonely, out of place, picked on. I like tapping into those emotions and finding a way to give a character a happy ending.
They are definitely universal. I'd bet we've all experienced at least one of those moments. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Edward Eager, especially his Half Magic. I loved the way it combined reality and fantasy and felt so just-left-of-the-ordinary. I also devoured every Nancy Drew I could get my hands on and every Marguerite Henry horse book.
You are the first person I've interviewed to mention Edgar Eager. We'd have been in the same library section as children. You’ve written two more serious picture books (To the Big Top and Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin'!) and a number of nonfiction picture books for National Geographic. Do you have a preference between fiction or nonfiction?
No, I really don’t. Writing picture book stories lets me exercise my imagination and use every writing/language trick available to writers. For me, that process employs more heart than head. Writing nonfiction, while employing many of the same writing tricks, is more head than heart. Plus, when writing nonfiction, the information is right there for the researching. All I have to do is try to present it in an engaging way. That’s challenging, of course, but not as “hard” as wrestling with a twisty, slippery fiction idea.
What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)
Kids, kids, and only kids are what keep me going, especially those I meet in school or Skype visits. Their enthusiasm is contagious. My newest inspirations, though, are my three-going-on-four grands. Story ideas pop and spark every time we’re together. Hadn’t counted on that…what a sweet bonus!
Something to look forward to (in the very distant future!). Do you have a favorite among your books? (We promise not to tell the others.)
It’s usually the newest, because the possibilities are endless (Everybody in the world will want this book!) until reality rears its ugly head (No, everybody will not.). So, I’ll say How to Grow a Dinosaur is my current favorite. I do have a soft spot for my 2006 book, though, Estelle Takes a Bath. It’s short, out-of-control, fun-to-read, and oh, so cleverly illustrated by Mary DePalma.
Is there anything special you want your readers to know about How to Grow a Dinosaur?
I’ve been incredibly lucky with illustrators, overall. But I have to admit that How to Grow a Dinosaur has my favorite illustrations yet because if I saw this book in the wild, I’d assume the author and illustrator were pals who collaborated throughout. We weren’t and didn’t. So if this book takes off, all credit goes to the gifted Mike Boldt.
Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have lots of stuff in various stages, but my focus right now is a humorous chapter book. The main characters are unlikely dinosaur buddies. Surprise.
Can't wait for the cover reveal of that one! Best of luck with it. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you are grateful you did not know at the beginning?
I knew nothing about writing when I started out in the fall of 1996, and that’s not an exaggeration. I didn’t even know a story needed some type of conflict. Story-wise, I learned most of what I know by making mistakes. Early on, my goal was to not make the same mistake twice. Still is. Had I known how steep the learning curve would be, I may have given up. Ignorance is bliss.
I didn’t realize that the business side of writing could consume so much time. I kept track one day last fall of all the emails I answered, papers I filled out, calls I made, misc items I had to do for other people, basically, and it was … well, dismaying, how much writing time I was giving up! ("I’m just a girl who can’t say no. ") No wonder I was getting grumpy, as I tend to do when writing gets pushed to the back-burner day after day. I’m still not good at saying no, but I am committed, in this new year, to carving out a couple of hours every morning just to write/revise, and to defer writing-related business for afternoon. I keep a running chore list to check each morning, labeled with things I have to do TODAY, THIS WEEK, SOON. That takes the pressure off, somewhat, and is better for my state of mind than reaching for my keyboard across 37 layers of sticky note reminders.
Do you have any advice on querying agents, surviving rejections, managing bouts of success, or anything else for authors or illustrators?
Managing bouts of success? I like that. It’s an apt description for the roller coaster that is the writing life. It’s those UP times that keep us going, even if they consist of no more than a friend praising a four-line poem we’ve written. Any affirmation works like magic on mojo-gone-missing.
Rejection is simply a reality of this business. Thick skin is a necessity!
You are so right about the "upper" a little praise can bestow. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I’d better say it’s my half-Border collie, half-German shepherd, Brodie. He’s a Mama’s boy.
What a beautiful guy! Thank you, Jill for participating in this interview.
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the #PPBF post on How to Grow a Dinosaur.
To find out more about Jill Esbaum, or get in touch with her: