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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with AJ Irving

Today I get the privilege to feature AJ Irving. AJ grew up in Boise, Idaho, writing stories and daydreaming about becoming an author. Now, she writes picture books and poetry on her big back porch in a tiny town near Jackson, Wyoming. AJ reads kidlit every day and dances every chance she gets.

As an author and former bookmobile librarian, AJ is passionate about inspiring children to read.

Her debut picture book, Dance Like a Leaf, releases from Barefoot Books this Friday, August 21st.

Welcome AJ, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut picture book 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?)

AJ: I am the most focused in the morning, and I love to write outside. We moved from Seattle to Etna, Wyoming, last December. I have never seen so much snow in my life! My husband calls shoveling snow “the Wyoming workout.” I’ve spent as much time as possible on our porch this summer. Creating during the pandemic has been difficult for me, but I started a new picture book that I’m excited about. I also revised several manuscripts for submission.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. It has always been my dream. I played sports growing up. When I was a kiddo, I really wanted to be a sportswriter for The New York Times. My grandpa and I took a trip to NYC. I shook the editor’s hand and told him I would be back in ten years for a job. I changed my mind about the type of writing I wanted to do quite a bit in my late teens and early twenties. I found my true love of writing after I became a mother. I have been writing picture books ever since.

My projects are all over the place. My mentor, Laura Gehl, says I have a lot of range 😊 My debut picture book is lyrical and written from the heart. I think my strongest work comes from personal experience. I’d say my favorite type of book to write incorporates heart and humor. These are also my favorite books to read.

I love those types of books, so I can't wait to see what you write next. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

My mom worked at a TV station when I was growing up. I was in a lot of commercials for local businesses. My favorite one was for a pizza company. The delivery driver was a cartoon character named John Dough. This commercial was the first locally produced computer animated commercial in Boise, Idaho. I was also in a commercial for Paint the Town when I was in high school. In the spot, I say, “Let’s paint the town!” My husband saw it on TV before we met. He still teases me about it. One of my favorite memories growing up was watching Murder She Wrote with my mom while she wrote scripts and read them aloud to time them. I thought her stopwatch was the coolest thing. I guess those experiences stuck with me. My first job out of college was at a TV station.

That sounds like a fun time. What inspired you to write Dance Like a Leaf?

My grandma and I were very close. We were pen pals, and I visited her in Montana every summer growing up. She passed away from Alzheimer’s in the fall of 2014. The last letter I wrote her was the inspiration for Dance Like a Leaf.

As you said, your strongest books come from personal experience. I'm glad you have good memories of her. What was the hardest part of writing Dance Like a Leaf? How long did it take to strike the right emotional balance?

Dance Like a Leaf was actually one of the fastest manuscripts I’ve ever written. It didn’t change much from the first draft to the final. It was a therapeutic experience. I cried and smiled during the entire process. This little story has made quite a few people tear up, including my critique partners, agent, editor, husband, and son.

And I think it will touch quite a few readers. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

The Velveteen Rabbit and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie were two of my favorite books. I also adored the Little Critter and Berenstain Bears series. Heidi by Johanna Spyri was the book that turned me into a reader. I remember reading this at bedtime with my grandma. I still have her copy of the book.

What a special gift to have that book. Is there something you want your readers to know about Dance Like a Leaf?

Dance Like a Leaf traveled straight from my heart to my pen. It received a starred review from School Library Journal. The Spanish edition, Baila como una hoja, received a glowing review from Booklist.

Congratulations! How unusual is it for a book to release in French and Spanish versions at the same time?

Pretty unusual for debuts and first print runs. My editor said, “We haven’t released a book in English, French, and Spanish simultaneously maybe ever so congrats on that!”

It's definitely a testament to how touching and special the book is. How long did it take from the first draft to publication? What was the hardest part of the publication process? The easiest?

It took six years from the first draft to publication. I didn’t query agents with this manuscript. I felt it was too quiet. I tucked it away and submitted my high concept, character-driven picture books instead. The hardest part of the process was waiting! I received the offer in the summer of 2018, but I didn’t get the contract until March 2019.

I was also eager to see artwork. The first illustrator didn’t have the right vibe for the book. It was worth the wait! I am incredibly grateful that Claudia Navarro illustrated Dance Like a Leaf. She is brilliant. I have developed wonderful relationships with Claudia and my editor, Kate DePalma. I think many writers are intimidated by agents and editors. I used to feel this way! Kate is fantastic and incredibly enthusiastic. Her emails about our trade reviews included a lot of exclamation points and emojis. Love her!

What a great experience. Did anything about the illustrations surprise you (when you first got to see them)? What is your favorite spread?

Text © AJ Irving, 2020. Image © Claudia Navarro, 2020.

I was blown away by how beautiful the illustrations were. I also really appreciated what Claudia brought to our book. I love that she added a multigenerational layer to the story through her art. My family moved in with my dad after he was diagnosed with Leukemia. My daughter and my dad are incredibly close, just like the grandmother and granddaughter in the story. Seeing Claudia’s art has definitely been one of the most exciting parts of my debut journey. My favorite spread is the wordless one before the final page. This was my editor’s idea. She was also the art director for Dance Like a Leaf.

That is such a magnificent image! Claudia's art throughout is delightful. 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?

I would really love to sell another book! The most frustrating thing has been close calls. One of my manuscripts went to acquisitions twice but didn’t sell. Two editors requested more of my work, and then passed on the projects. I am thankful to have a supportive agent. Jordan sends me lovely emails (and/or phone calls) reminding me that she believes in me and my work. She also helped me plan my book launch.

My advice is passion, persistence, patience, and tough skin. There will be a lot of no's along the way, but it only takes one yes. One my favorite quotes from Arree Chung: “You haven’t written your best book yet. Keep creating!”

Great advice from both of you! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I used to be a bookmobile librarian. I have a picture book about a rock'n'roll tour bus that gets sold to the library and converted into a bookmobile. He hates it until he meets a little girl with sweet wheels who shows him how much books rock. This project is currently on submission. I also have a lyrical picture book inspired by our first dog and all the experiences she shared with my children. A daddy/daughter gardening picture book, a picture book about a wizard who turns a mop into a Komondor, a boy ballerino picture book, a Drag Queen Story Hour picture book, and a picture book about a puppy and a plushie (inspired by Escargot). And a bunch more that aren’t polished yet! My latest WIP is a queer girl picture book.

Those all sound intriguing. I'll keeping an eye out for them. Is there something you wish you could tell your younger self or kids today?

Dream big! Never give up!

What is your favorite animal? Why?

Elephants! They are wise, protective, and loving. They console each other by “hugging.” I am a hugger! I can’t wait to read She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch by June Smalls.

I am confident in saying that you are going to LOVE June's book!

Thank you, AJ for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Dance Like A Leaf .

To find out more about AJ Irving, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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