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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum has published more than 50 fiction and nonfiction books for kids. She teaches writing for children at the annual Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Retreat. Her books have won a number of awards and been named to many state lists. She and her husband live on a family farm near Davenport, Iowa.

Jill's recent titles include the Thunder & Cluck graphic early reader series, and picture books We Love Babies!, Frog Boots, Where’d My Jo Go?, and How to Grow a Dinosaur.

For additional information see our earlier interview (here).

Her newest picture book, Jack Knight's Brave Flight: How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the US Air Mail Service, releases March 29th. It has been selected as a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard book and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Jill, thank you so much for stopping back by to talk about your newest book and your writing.

Thanks for asking, Maria! Always a joy to chat with you again.

Did you find anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?

My husband and I had taken a road trip in September of 2019 that was part vacation and part research for a nonfiction picture book, and I'd spent the rest of fall/winter happily lost down the research rabbit hole. So when the lockdown began in March, I had a project ready to flesh out. Through those spring/summer months, I kept my BIC and worked to shape all that research into a viable manuscript ... that will in 2024 become Bird Girl – Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World (Calkins Creek).

Meanwhile, our family has been very fortunate regarding Covid (so far). Mild cases here and there, but nothing too serious. I am by nature an upbeat person, but you can bet this has me counting my blessings daily and praying good health continues.

I missed school visits because of the pandemic, of course, and was sad that my author friend Linda Skeers and I had to cancel our picture book workshop in 2020. But home is my favorite place to be, so being "stuck" here with minimal distractions was in no way a harsh sentence. In addition to plenty of writing, I talked my husband into digging me a garden patch so I could raise some veggies again, which I hadn't done for years, and have really loved my "soil therapy."

Amidst all the sad (bad) news, I love seeing ways others have embraced this period. Soil therapy & gardening have also helped me these past few years. What was your inspiration for Jack Knight's Brave Flight: How One Gutsy Pilot Saved the US Air Mail Service?

I had originally wanted to write something about early barn-storming pilots and stunt fliers, who traveled from town to town across America after WWI, showing off their biplane flying skills. That research got a little depressing; most of their careers didn't end in retirement. But while paging through one of the research books, I'd fortunately stumbled upon the story of Jack Knight. Here's my book's catalog copy, to give you an idea:

"A large crowd cheers the mail plane buzzing off into the night sky above North Platte, Nebraska. What’s so exciting? History in the making. Or at least a stab at it. For the past few years, biplanes like this one have been flying the mail in short hops all over the country, but only during daylight hours. Flying after dark is too risky. How would pilots see where they were going? It’s true that crashes are all too common. Because of them, lawmakers decide to cut funding for the U.S. Air Mail Service. Outraged officials and pilots want to prove that flying the mail is the fastest way to move it across America, so they concoct a daring stunt — a coast-to-coast race. If successful, the race will convince lawmakers to save air mail service. But when a crash, exhaustion, and a snowstorm ground three of the [four] planes, Jack Knight becomes the race’s only hope for success. Oh, okay. All he has to do is fly all night long, find his way by leaning out to see what’s below, and navigate a blizzard over land he’s never before covered…with an empty fuel tank. Will he crash? Will he pull it off and save the Air Mail Service? In this suspenseful telling of an unknown flight, Jill Esbaum and illustrator Stacy Innerst bring high-flying history to life."

As I read about Jack's almost superhuman accomplishment (spoiler alert: he made it), I got goosebumps. I'm a sucker for flash-in-the-pan stories––those people who enjoyed 15 minutes of fame, then faded into obscurity.

I love that you bring these "flash-in-the-pan" heroines/heros renewed appreciation and recognition. How many revisions did Jack Knight's Brave Flight take from first draft to publication? Was this longer or similar your other trade picture books?

Um, well ... I don't remember for sure. I first wrote this one in 2008, but it was rejected a few times, so I put it away. A few years ago, with a different agent and nonfiction experiencing its meteoric rise, I remembered my Jack Knight manuscript and thought, Hmm, maybe....

Calkins Creek Executive Editor Carolyn Yoder asked me to drop the sidebars I had sprinkled through the book and incorporate that info into the main text. I did that, because c'mon, Carolyn Yoder. She acquired it, and *BIG CELEBRATION ENSUED* Then she asked me to write more back matter, which made me groan inwardly (okay, outwardly) but turned out to be both fascinating and FUN. Now I include back matter for pretty much everything I write, nonfiction and my other current obsession, humorous informational fiction (the first two of those coming soon, Stinkbird Has a Superpower and Parrotfish Has a Superpower).

These days, I rarely do separate revisions. I just dive in and get lost in tweaking my first draft until it looks and sounds like a finished book.

I can't wait for those two books, they sound amazing! Having recently gone back to earlier versions with a few of my manuscripts, I can imagine a lot of people quaking right now, thinking of not keeping all those meticulously saved, specially designated drafts. 😊 How long did it take to get the voice right?

The voice felt inevitable to me from the beginning. A close third person, present tense POV would, I hoped, make readers feel they were in the cockpit with Jack as he's flying low through the night, leaning out over the side of his biplane, trying to see down through an icy, swirling blizzard to locate the snow-drifted railroad tracks he's supposed to be following.

It definitely worked for me. How hard is it for you to switch between fiction and nonfiction picture books?

Not at all, probably because I get a little obsessive about whatever project I'm focusing on and tend to forget about other manuscripts. Also where I am, what time of day it is, and whether or not I've had anything to eat/drink. Sometimes I have to set a timer.

*laughing* When you first saw Stacy Innerst’s illustrations in Jack Knight's Brave Flight, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Jill Esbaum, 2022. Image © Stacy Innerst, 2022.

Ooh, I'm glad you asked, because I was definitely delighted. More like floored. Stacey Innerst's incredible, mixed media work is an author's dream come true. I couldn't pick a favorite spread because it all works so well as a whole. The entire story happens at night, at least until the very end, which I knew would be a challenge for an illustrator. But Stacey handles it beautifully, his deep blues and purples and shades of grays and yellows making every scene––whether up in the night sky or inside an airport shed––so atmospheric and believable. Yet they somehow convey a quirky touch of humor, too. Amazing.

I love the slight humor in the illustrations of this spread. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I'm currently working on some fascinating work-for-hire projects with a book packager, WonderLab. In the queue is another flash-in-the-pan nonfiction story from the 1940s with lots of kid-appeal. I'm also gathering information and jotting lines for a rhyming picture book about ... something very common that we take for granted. Plus brainstorming ideas for a preschool cartoon series (fun, whether or not it goes anywhere). Lots of ideas waiting for my attention.

Wow! I can't wait to see what comes out next! What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

My parents took my older brother and me on long driving/camping vacations every summer of my childhood/youth, so I've enjoyed my share of National Parks/Forests...which makes it tough to name a favorite. I feel a pull to return to the Rockies or the Sierras or the Tetons or the Smokies (definitely a "mountain person"). But one particular hike in the Bighorn National Forest with our own kiddos, back in the day, took my breath away––not the altitude, but the beauty and joy of the day. So I'd love to go back there.

Thank you, Jill for stopping by again and sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.

Thanks for asking, Maria!

Be sure to come back on Friday for a sneak peek Perfect Picture Book post #PPBF on Jack Knight's Brave Flight.

To find out more about Jill Esbaum, or contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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