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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Susanna Leonard Hill

Hooray! Are you all in for a treat!

Today, I get the privilege of interviewing amazing Susanna Leonard Hill.

Susanna Leonard Hill is and award-winning author of twenty books for children, including Punxsutawney Phyllis (A Book List Children's Pick and Amelia Bloomer Project choice), No Sword Fighting In The House (a Junior Library Guild selection), Can't Sleep Without Sheep (a Children's Book of The Month), Not Yet, Rose (a Gold Mom's Choice Award Winner and an Itabashi Translation Award Finalist), and When Your Lion Needs A Bath (Parents Magazine #1 Board Book 2017, CYBILS Award Finalist, CBC Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year along with When Your Elephant Has The Sniffles). Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, German, Japanese, and Chinese. Susanna lives in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley with her children, and two rescue dogs.

Susanna is an amazingly generous, caring, and talented person. In addition to her "Would You Read It Wednesday" & "Perfect Picture Book Friday" (#PPBF) posts, she has added a “Tuesday Debut,” post featuring new picture book authors. Be sure to check out her website and blog for additional information on her amazing contests and her “Making Picture Book Magic” class (links below).

In addition to two other books releasing in April and May, her newest book Moon’s First Friends: One Giant Leap For Friendship released on June 4th. (And it is a NY Times Best Seller!)

Welcome back Susanna!

Thank you so much for having me today, Maria, and for sharing my new book(s)!

[For some basic information on Susanna, check out our first interview on July 23, 2017 (here).]

ME: This year you have three books coming out about the same time. Why A Daughter Needs A Mom (April 2, 2019), Why A Daughter Needs A Dad (May 1, 2019), and Moon’s First Friends: One Giant Leap for Friendship. You also had a release of three books close together in 2017. Do you find this to be a pattern for you? Is it the way you write and revise or some other factor?

SUSANNA: I don’t think it’s a pattern. It just turned out that way. In this case, Why A Daughter Needs A Mom and Why A Daughter Needs A Dad were books I wrote for hire. The concept for these books belongs to NY Times Bestselling Author Gregory Lang who published them as books for adults. But he and the publisher wanted a version for children, so I was asked to take the general idea of his books for grown-ups and make them kid-friendly…and in rhyme! I loved the sentiments of the books and thought they would make special stories for kids and parents to share, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to write them. One had to be released in time for Mother’s Day and the other for Father’s Day, so that is why they came out so close together and happened to coincide with the release of Moon’s First Friends. Sydney Hanson’s art is so sweet and perfect for the books – I think they really came out nicely!

Text © Susanna Hill, 2019. Image © Sydney Hanson, 2019.

It is absolutely adorable; both the text and the illustration. When did you start writing these three books?

I was asked to write them in November 2017 and had 3-4 weeks to get both done. The timing was tight because the text had to be finalized so the art could be done in time for publication in April and May 2019, so we were working with just barely 18 months.

Moon’s First Friends was also a special project where the publisher found me! I received a message through my website from an editor who loved Can’t Sleep Without Sheep and wondered if I’d be interested in writing a fictional book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. I was thrilled at the prospect and wrote it in the summer of 2016. But its release was timed for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (July 20, 2019), which is why it came out June 4, 2019 and landed in the with the other two book releases.

I am so impressed you could write two rhyming texts in 3-4 weeks! And what a testament to your abilities that publishers are hunting you down, now. Do you find it difficult to have so many books release at the same time?

I love having new books out – it’s so exciting! I mainly find it difficult because I don’t like doing the promotional/publicity stuff. I’d much rather share for other people than myself! It makes me uncomfortable enough to share the news of one new book, never mind several, because I feel like people must get very tired of seeing my name and my books on social media…and yet I have a responsibility to the publisher to try to get the word out. So, I try to find a happy medium, but I’m never sure if I’m successful! (I’ll take this opportunity to apologize if I’m driving you nuts!)

*[Be sure to check out Susanna Leonard Hill's FB author page (here) for great ideas for generating buzz around a book release on an important anniversary. Such as Moon Madlibs, Moon Haikus, and "making your own moon lit sky."]*

No apology necessary. As you noted, you have no control over releases. And I have to say I thought your July "count down" posts for Moon’s First Friends were ingenious! How did writing Moon’s First Friends differ from writing your previous books? What was the toughest aspect of writing this book?

Writing Moon’s First Friends was different because a publisher had specifically requested that I write a story about the moon landing. I’d never been given a topic in that way before or written a story that I was pretty certain from the get-go would be published if I got it right. The story part of Moon’s First Friends was one of those wonderful stories that almost felt like it wrote itself. I knew what I wanted to say.

The harder part was the back matter. The publisher thought that including some nonfiction would be a great addition to the book, and I agreed completely. But it took us awhile to decide what to use, so I researched and wrote a bunch of different things before we decided on what ended up in the book. Several of the topics I’d researched and written up ended up not being used… but I learned a lot of cool stuff in the process, so I didn’t mind.

That seems to happen a lot with back matter. But it's fun learning new things. Besides, you never know when that research may come in handy. Where did the inspiration for Moon’s First Friends come from?

Honestly, I find the moon and the whole concept of space exploration inspiring. Since I’d been asked to write something fictional to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I wanted to write the story from the moon’s point of view. I wondered how she would perceive the whole NASA/spacecraft/astronaut situation. And I wondered what might matter to her. I decided that maybe she was lonely, up there in the sky, fixed in her orbit where she couldn’t visit other constellations or stars, and that she longed for someone to come to her and be her friend. So, I had her watch over her earth – her closest companion in the sky - as it evolved over the ages, waiting and hoping for friends, and finally seeing humans develop the capacity for flight and then space travel. I liked the idea of the moon hoping for friendship not just because it’s something every young reader can relate to, but because friendship is so important in the world, as we face the many challenges that exist. I felt like it had a more global connection beyond the moon and the astronauts, and beyond young readers who might be hoping to make friends, all the way to how humanity can benefit from uniting and cooperating to make our world better.

What a wonderful premise to start with. When you add in Elisa Paganelli's illustrations, I think you both nailed that goal. I love the title. Did you have the title at the start? How did you come up with the title?

Hahaha! Actually, full disclosure, my title was Moon Dreams because the moon was dreaming of having a friend. The publisher changed it to The Moon’s First Friends: How The Moon Met The Astronauts From Apollo 11 (which I guess they decided was kind of a mouthful) and then to Moon’s First Friends: One Giant Leap For Friendship, which I really like but I had nothing to do with that!

​​Also, much to my surprise and delight, Moon’s First Friends was picked up by Barnes & Noble to have an exclusive edition, so the book has two different covers! The jacket of the B&N cover opens to become a poster of the interior spread with the phases of the moon! [So cool to see them side by side!]

Thank you for sharing both the progression of the title and the two cover images. What's something you want your readers to know about Moon’s First Friends?

One of the coolest features of the book is something that was dreamed up by the book designer (I think – perhaps it was one of the editors…). They placed QR codes on the front and back endpapers. If you focus your phone camera on the code (or if you have an older phone and use a QR reader app) it pops up a link to NASA’s site. The front one plays the actual 1969 audio of the countdown to lift-off of Apollo 11. The back one plays Neil Armstrong’s famous words as he steps out of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon. It is so cool to hear the actual transmissions, just as they occurred in 1969! To imagine how the astronauts must have felt, strapped in awaiting launch, wondering whether it would all go according to plan – they were really taking their lives in their hands! – or how absolutely incredible it must have been for Neil Armstrong to be the first person ever to set foot on the moon. I think it brings the book to life in a unique way and I love it – it gives me chills every time!

WOW! I agree with you; it is an amazing treat. It really does make this book special. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

One thing I would share, which I hope comes across in the moon’s story, is that if something matters to you, keep trying. Don’t give up. The moon didn’t give up on her quest for a friend, and eventually she was rewarded for her patience and perseverance. NASA didn’t give up on the concept of space travel, even though it was a truly unknown frontier. There are many, many challenges that kids face as they grow, from learning to tie their shoes to learning to smooth over a fight with a friend that require commitment and dedication to their purpose. And for writers, well, we too must keep the faith – keep writing, keep submitting – because that is the only way to succeed. You know the old saying: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

What a great take-away - Never quit. There are so many examples of tenacity leading to eventual success. And it's no wonder Moon’s First Friends is a NY Times Best Seller! Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I just finished a book that will be out next April/May - Alphabedtime! (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books) - so I’m currently in the "roll-ideas-around-in-your-head-and-pick-something-new-to-work-on" phase. I have a few half-baked ideas…you do not want to see my kitchen table, where my numerous scraps of paper with scribbled down titles, words, phrases, and other tidbits of ideas are scattered about…but nothing definite yet. Meanwhile, I have several other books releasing over the next year, so I delight in waiting to see art and cover concepts and look forward to the day those books show up on my porch!

*[Susanna is so modest - take a look at what is coming from Susanna later this year. Then tell me if you agree she doesn't have an M.O. of releasing books in sets of three.]*

Having gone through numerous book releases and associated readings and school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (What will you do/try differently this time?

Find a multi-talented tech-savvy volunteer personal assistant! No, seriously.

I entered the world of writing for children because I love writing for children. Like most of you, I have no formal training or education in marketing, publicity, promotion, graphic design, book trailer creation, public speaking, etc. Technology intimidates me! And I have limited time and funds for making flyers or postcards (physical or digital) and sending out mailings (snail mail or email.) Everything I do I’ve learned on the fly (or cajoled my children into helping me with/doing it for me!)

Given that multi-talented tech-savvy volunteer personal assistants are much in demand but hard to come by, I’d say if you’re just learning your book is to be published, a couple things are key:

(1) Create a website if you don’t have one already.

- You can keep it simple, but make sure it tells a little about you, your book(s), your availability for school and library visits and what your visit program is, and a way to contact you at the very least. You can, of course, add more if you want to (a blog, a way to purchase your books from your site, a media kit, coloring and/or activity pages and/or teacher guides for your book, etc.), but make sure the essentials are there.

- People interested in you and your books will assume they can google you and come up with a website.

- Take a little time to look around at the websites of other children’s authors and see what they have done to help give your ideas about the look, feel, and content you’d like for your own;

(2) Establish yourself professionally on and engage in a couple forms of social media you feel comfortable with (Face Book, Twitter, Instagram, etc.).

- You don’t have to do every form of social media – it’s too much and you won’t be able to keep up, plus you’re likely to feel much more comfortable on some platforms than others – but make sure you’re in one or two places where you can get to know your fellow authors, teachers, librarians, agents and publishers, and they can get to know you.

(3) While you’re waiting for your book to come out (well, all the time really!) be kind and share other people’s books.

- If you read a book, take the time to review it on the big sites where people look for that kind of information – Amazon, B&N, Goodreads etc.

- It’s incredibly helpful to authors to get reviews, and if you take the time to review others’ books, they’re much more likely to do it for you when your book comes out;

(4) Go visit your local libraries, introduce yourself to the librarians, show them your book, and offer to do a reading or story time. Librarians are your friends!

(5) Contact your local preschools and elementary schools (or high schools if you write for older readers) and let them know you’re available for school visits and what your program consists of.

- You can research and contact schools farther afield as well, or make those connections through your website and social media, but I have personally found word of mouth to be the best source of school visits. So if you do a few locally, it’s likely teachers or library media specialists will tell their friends and associates in other districts and they will contact you through that lovely website you made;

(6) If you’re going to do one extra thing, consider making bookmarks.

- They can serve as both a bookmark and as a business card. You can give them away with your books when you sign them. You can hand them to anyone who wants to visit your website later, or who wants to remember to look up your book for purchase.

*- If there are kids at school visits or book festivals who can’t afford to buy books, you can give them a signed bookmark as a keepsake of your visit; and

(7) One thing I’d like to do that I haven’t done yet is Skype visits. That’s on my list!

Susanna, thank you! You covered a little bit for authors of any level. It's worth noting that the website creation, social media involvement, and library/school introductions can be done even before your book has a publication date. And the bookmark idea, especially for any who can't buy the book, is a super idea.

Thank you, Susanna for coming back by. It is always a pleasure to chat with you.

Thank you so much for having me, Maria! I so appreciate the opportunity!

Be sure to come back Friday for the #PPBF post on Moon's First Friends: One Giant Leap for Friendship.

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

Also be sure to also check out Susanna's online, picture book writing course:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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