The Picture Book Buzz- Interview with Deborah Underwood
If you're looking for a great way to freak out your parents,
tell them you're going to be a street musician when you grow up.
Born in Walla Walla, Washington, Deborah Underwood dreamed of being an astronomer. (even named her stuffed bear Ursa Major), a singer, or a writer. Today, she writes and sings, so she’s done pretty well. She also wanted to work in a piano factory and paste the labels on new pianos. And on tough days, she occasionally dreams of changing careers.
Deborah has written over 45 books, both fiction and non-fiction, picture book and chapter book. She is a NY Times best-selling author and “when she's not writing, you might find her singing in a choir, playing a ukulele (very badly), walking around in Golden Gate Park, baking vegan cookies, or petting any dogs, cats, pigs, or turkeys that happen to be nearby.”
Her two newly released picture books are Reading Beauty (September) and Finding Kindness, which releases tomorrow.
Welcome Deborah, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.
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?)
DEBORAH: I’ve been writing for kids since 2001. My writing schedule varies widely, but I generally work best in the mornings and try to save administrative things for the afternoon. I love picture book writing, but it’s fun to work on longer things. So much of picture book writing is thinking, and there’s something satisfying about longer projects. If I write 1,000 words of a novel manuscript, I feel like I’ve put in a good day’s work. It’s nice to have something to show for yourself at the end of the day! With picture books, that’s not always the case.
You are so right about that. I might need to dust off my MG that won't leave me alone. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
My writing is fueled by extra-strong tea I mail-order from England.
Interesting. They do have strong tea! Have most of your nonfiction books been work for hire? How long did you write work for hire books?
Yes; all but one were work for hire. I wrote them for close to ten years to generate income as I strengthened my picture book chops. It was a great learning experience that taught me a lot about the editorial process and working within strict formats.
You also co-wrote a six-book series, Sugar Plum Ballerinas, with Whoopi Goldberg. Wow! How did that come about?
The publisher put things together. Whoopi Goldberg wanted to do a chapter book series about a diverse group of ballerinas in Harlem, and I was brought on board to help with the writing. I had to write several sample chapters as an audition, but after jumping through that hoop, I was signed for the series.
What an awesome opportunity. Would you say there is a common thread in your fiction picture books?
Oh gosh, that’s a hard question to answer! It’s easier for others to look at your body of work as a whole. If there’s a recurring theme, it’s probably empathy and trying to see another’s point of view.
That's a great theme. Since 2010, you’ve averaged about 2 books a year. What’s your secret for producing & publishing so many books each year, especially when you’ve had 3 or 4 releasing in a year? Do you find that the books compete against each other for attention? Have you found it difficult to promote so many books?
No secret—just a lot of work and having an agent who is excellent at sending a manuscript to just the right editor. I don’t really think the books compete with each other, except maybe in my own very limited world (e.g. a friend might buy one of my releases this year, but probably not all five.)
True enough. The hard part would be choosing which one to buy. This year, you launched 5 books - Bearnard’s Book (Feb), Panda Problem (April), Ogilvy (May), Reading Beauty (September), & Finding Kindness (October). Was there anything you had to do differently with so many books released at the same time?
Not really. After trying a number of promotional ideas on my own over the years with no discernible results, I’ve learned that any promoting I can do pales in comparison to what a publisher can do. I’m happy to do what publishers ask of me in terms of promotion: go to conferences, write marketing letters, go on tour, etc., but in general it makes more sense for me to focus on writing my next book.
We heard that a lot during the PB Summit - "write the next book." I fell in love with the cover of Finding Kindness. What was your inspiration for this book?
Thank you! That idea originated with my wonderful editor, Laura Godwin. She wanted a book on kindness and asked if I would be interested in writing one. I was! Irene Chan’s illustrations are lovely and a perfect fit.
How does Finding Kindness differ from the other four books released this year? Would you say it was similar to your books Quiet (2013) and Loud (2015)?
It is similar in that it’s a concept book. It’s about the concept of kindness, rather than the story of a particular character who has a problem and needs to solve it. My other four books this year are more traditional narrative stories.
It's a great concept book. And I like that it encapsulates empathy, as well as kindness. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
One book I remember loving was When I Have a Little Girl by Charlotte Zotolow, with wonderful illustrations by Hilary Knight. I felt as if the author really understood what it was like to be a kid and took it seriously. I always have that in the back of my mind when I write.
Maybe that's what makes your books so successful. Reading Beauty is another fractured fairy tale set in outer space (in fact, in Interstellar Cinderella’s (2015) world). What was the inspiration for this story?
I knew I wanted to do a companion book to Interstellar Cinderella, and my dream was to tackle the Big Three princesses—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella—and give parents and kids alternatives to the passive princesses of the past. I’m happy to report that my mission has been accomplished: Meg Hunt is illustrating Snow Bright and the Seven Bots right now!
Dreams can come true! I'm looking forward to reading that one. I can't wait to see how you empowered this princess. With such a diverse spectrum of work, what/who is your greatest source of inspiration?
There’s no one particular source. Ideas can show up anywhere. The trick is making the time and space for them to do so!
Do you have a favorite book? (We promise NOT to tell the others) Perhaps one that was the most gratifying to write (or finish)? One that means the most you or your family? Or one that tickled your funny bone the most?
Granny Gomez and Jigsaw will always have a special place in my heart; it’s dedicated to my mom, who loved the story but passed away before it was published. Good Night, Baddies has illustrations by Juli Kangas that I am completely in love with—I want to fall into them. And Cat…well, Cat is quite a character, and even I am not immune to Cat’s charms. Short answer: all of them!
I too love Good Night, Baddies. Thank you for taking a stab at that question; it's a tough one. What was the hardest aspect of writing Finding Kindness? How about Reading Beauty?
In both cases, it was landing on the right concept. It took a lot of time and work for both of them. That’s the difficult and critical part. Once I know what I’m dealing with, I know I can probably execute it if I put in the time. But finding the concept is everything, especially for a picture book.
Do you find that you need to submit your manuscripts with illustrator notes? Did you have much input into the images for Finding Kindness or Reading Beauty?
I try to add them only when necessary. Reading Beauty had very few. Finding Kindness had more because they were needed to get the idea across. If I said, “Kindness is sometimes a cup and a card,” you would have no idea what I was talking about. So I added an illustration note about a girl capturing a bug with a cup and card and taking it outside to set it free.
Is there something you want your readers to know about Finding Kindness and/or Reading Beauty?
Nope, other than that I hope they enjoy them!
I'm pretty sure they will. You’ve written a few series (or multiples) - the Here Comes Cat series, the Part-time Princess/Mermaid, and the two Supersaurus books – do you find it easier or harder to write these?
It really varies. Especially as a series expands, it’s a tricky tightrope to walk. You want enough similarity to the previous books that a reader who loved the first books won’t be disappointed. But you also need to keep things new and fresh. I suspect we’ve all been disappointed by second or third books in a series, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone! It feels like a lot of pressure.
I can imagine. But you seem to have succeeded. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished and/or un-agented authors?
The hardest period was at the beginning, when I was working so hard to learn the craft but had no guarantee that I’d ever sell anything. I keep thinking of that leap of faith in one of the Indiana Jones movies: you have to keep moving forward, even if it feels like you’re stepping into nothingness. Scary! But if I hadn’t done it, I might still be typing memos for accountants.
As for advice: my best advice is simply to do the work. If you’re an intelligent person who’s done some homework, you know what you need to do. Read a ton of books in your genre. Join SCBWI. Get into a critique group. Take classes and go to conferences. Connect with others in this wonderful children’s writing community we’re so fortunate to have. Write, write, write. Rewrite. Improve. Keep going!
And what a leap of faith it can be! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m revising a picture book right now, but I don’t want to jinx anything! And then it’s on to the next project. That in-between time is always both freeing and frightening, because at the heart of it, the creative process is such a mystery, and you never know when the next idea will show up. But I’ll keep moving forward, and I hope your readers will, too. [Don't forget, she has Snow Bright and the Seven Bots coming out soon, too!]
Hope your muse sticks close. What is your favorite animal? Why?
Well, clearly I have to say Bella the cat or I’ll be in big trouble. But I love all animals, and petting a cheetah is on my bucket list.
Thank you, Deborah for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Thanks so much for having me!
Please be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF post on Finding Kindness.
To find out more about Deborah Underwood, or get in touch with her: