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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Lindsay Bonilla

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Lindsay Bonilla. Her newest picture book, Polar Bear Island, releases tomorrow, October 2nd.

After Lindsay Bonilla toured Spain and Portugal teaching ESL, she told stories to school children in Haiti and Ghana, taught workshops to youth pastors in Guatemala and El Salvador, and performed street theatre in Puerto Rico and New York City. These experiences made her

"passionate about building understanding and relationships across cultures while inspiring the imagination." She lives in North Canton, Ohio with her husband and two sons.

Welcome Lindsay. Thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about writing and your newest book, Polar Bear Island, which releases on October 2nd.

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? When did you get your agent?)

LINDSAY: I've been writing since I was a child. I used to carry around a notebook where I was constantly jotting down my ideas and inventing my own worlds. I was also that kid who turned in ten page stories when the teacher only assigned one page. (Sorry teachers!) Writing brought me so much joy that once I started, I couldn't stop!

Today I don't have nearly as much time to write as I would like. With a 4 and a half year old and a 19 month old at home, there is never a dull moment. I have to write in fits and starts – during nap time (which is never long enough!), after the kiddos are asleep or, most productive of all, on the days that I have a babysitter come for the afternoon. I have learned that I have to prioritize my creative time because being a creative artist is an important part of who I am. I don't feel whole when I'm not creating something!

I used to get extremely frustrated because I don't have a lot of time for “butt in chair” writing, but I've learned that there's actually a lot I can do when I'm not sitting in front of my computer. I work out plots, develop characters, and think through rhyme schemes in my head while I'm doing the dishes, taking a run or even nursing the baby to sleep. Sometimes I'll even “play act” the story with my kids to help me find the right dialogue. I would never have chosen this approach, but I do think it has strengthened my writing.

I enjoy writing picture books because I love the precision of language that they require. I also love playing with language, looking for opportunities to include alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme, etc. I really enjoy visualizing my stories as well. I play them out in my head like a movie which helps me think about how the text and the art can work together to tell the story.

What a fun way to work out the dialogue. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

For a long time I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. During my senior year of high school, we had a project called Senior Experience where you got to spend three weeks shadowing someone in your field of interest. I wrote a letter to Hannah Storm, who at the time was one of the only female sportscasters in the business. She actually wrote me back! Unfortunately, she said that the NBA Finals coincided with the week of my project, meaning she wouldn't know where she'd be at that time since it was all dependent on which teams might qualify. Alas, I never got to shadow her, but it was thrilling that she took the time to write back. I wonder how my career plans would have changed if the NBA Finals hadn't gotten in the way! LOL

It's so cool she wrote back. And definitely our gain that the NBA finals conflicted. What inspired Polar Bear Island?

My husband, Estith, is a Colombian immigrant. We met in Spain and when he moved here he didn't speak English. Still, as soon as his work permit came through, he started working as an electrician. He pushed himself to learn the language and because of his incredible skill and work ethic wherever he went he was quickly promoted to running jobs.

One day he and a crew of electricians went to do a job at an industrial plant. When they arrived, Estith began to explain to the supervisor what they were going to do. After hearing my husband's accent, the supervisor ignored him and addressed the other members of the crew instead.

My husband felt disrespected and hurt. This wasn't the first time that someone had not wanted to engage in a conversation with him because of his accent. When he told me what happened, I was sad and angry. While I could appreciate the fact that it can be hard to understand someone with an accent; I also felt like all too often, some people aren't even willing to try.

My husband's experience got me thinking about all the forms of discrimination that he and our immigrant friends had experienced as well as the negative bias that so often surrounds immigrants in general. I wanted to tell a story that painted a positive picture of immigration and that was the seed for Polar Bear Island. To this day I have no idea how penguins and polar bears became the vehicle for telling this story.

I am sorry Estith and your friends, or any immigrant, has to endure this. But it is funny how those penguins and polar bears snuck in there, though. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Probably Roald Dahl. I love the whimsy and playfulness of The BFG and Matilda. I was also a huge Babysitter's Club Fan. I think I read every book in that series as soon as I could get my hands on it.

Do you feel Polar Bear Island is a big departure from your other books?

Yes, I think so. When I wrote my first books, I really didn't know the industry as well as I do now. I hadn't read the proverbial 1,000 books in my genre. I hadn't read what was being published currently. I didn't know the importance of things like word count or that there was even a desired range for word counts depending on what type of book you are writing. I also didn't realize that not everything needs to be in the text – that you can leave room for the illustrator and the art to tell the story. My process is very different now as a result and I wish I could go back and apply it to my first books.

What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)

I think my earliest inspirations were my love of animals and my faith in God. Today those still inspire me, but on a daily basis, it's probably my family, especially my kids. Many of the manuscripts I've written over the last few years have aligned with my four and a half year old's interests at the time – pirates, superheroes, dinosaurs, etc. My youngest is only 19 months old so it seems I have more inspiration for years to come!

That's great news! Is there something you want your readers to know about Polar Bear Island?

Yes! I've spent the past few months working alongside Sterling to create an Activity Kit and Discussion Guide to help engage readers with the themes of Polar Bear Island. [Be sure to check these out! They are lots of fun.]

We've also created the program to encourage young readers to actively welcome and learn from others. All of these materials can be found at:

I'm super-excited to see the unique ways readers are becoming AmBEARssadors in their schools and communities and am hoping they'll share them on Twitter using the hashtag #AmBEARssador.

Thank you for the link. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I had to laugh when I read this question because I'm usually working on a billion things at once. When I got your email, my desktop was so cluttered with different manuscripts at all stages that I didn't know which one to work on first! One manuscript I've been working on for a while features my husband's home country of Colombia. I haven't found a lot of picture books that feature Colombia so I'm hoping it will find a home!

I think there is a good likelihood that you will succeed, especially with the #MSWL requests for diversity. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?

Probably just how subjective it is. This seems obvious, but I think the majority of us forget it. As writers we want everyone to fall in love with everything we write. But reading tastes are very subjective – the kinds of books I like to read would never hold my husband's interest and vice versa.

It's good to remember that we have no control over an agent's or editor's tastes. All we can control is the quality of our writing. Then it becomes a matter of getting our manuscripts out there and looking for that perfect fit. And once you find it, it's still no guarantee that that editor/agent will love your next project. So you just keep writing as much as you can!

Control the quality and trust in the process. Sometimes that's much harder than it sounds. Any advice for those still working toward acquiring an agent or getting published?

I can't state enough the importance of reading as much as you can in your genre and learning the form. But after that I think I would say, be patient and enjoy the process. I know that's the advice that no one wants to hear because it seems like most writers are in a race and publication feels like the finish line. However, in my experience, with the majority of my manuscripts, after writing and revising, I have had to set them aside and let them breathe. Oftentimes I've reached a point where I've said, “Yes! I've done it! This manuscript is the best it can be.”

But maybe my agent, a critique partner, or an editor didn't feel the same, but none of us could put our finger on what it needed. In this case, I've set my manuscripts aside. Sometimes for months or even years. Then when it seems like it's the farthest thing from my mind, I'll be lying in bed or driving in my car and suddenly the story will come back to mind and BOOM!, I can finally see what needs to be done. After I revise again, I'm amazed at how much better it is and wonder how I couldn't see this to begin with. But then I look back and I'm thankful to see how far the manuscript has come and what a unique journey the story and I have taken to get it to this point.

I imagine you're not alone in this "proofing" of a story, to borrow a cooking term. I know it's happened for me and my critique partners. What is your favorite animal? Why?

The giraffe. I love the beauty, peacefulness and uniqueness of it. It was also the subject of my first school report.

Thank you Lindsay for stopping by. It was wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post on Polar Bear Island.

To find out more about Lindsay Bonilla, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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