Ruth McNally Barshaw wrote and illustrated six Ellie McDoodle Diaries, illustrated novel There’s No Base Like Home and picture book Leopold the Lion, and wrote four short stories for Amazon Rapids. She and author-husband Charlie travel widely teaching writing workshops. Ruth will share her insights into children’s books at the upcoming A Rally of Writers. As a little teaser, here is the Q&A that we did with Ruth.
How long have you been doing children’s books?
I started writing, illustrating, and researching children’s books in 2003. In 2004 I met modern-day master Tomie dePaola at Borders bookstore in Rochester, Michigan, showed him my art, and told him of my six disheartening rejections. (Six is not many, but to me it was.) He suggested I come to the big SCBWI conference in NYC in 2005. I did, and I kept a sketch-journal of everything I saw. I came home, put all 180 pages online, and it went viral. Just two weeks after coming home I had 1000 emails from people I didn’t know, and 100 written and illustrated pages of a new sketch-journal-style children’s novel, and interest from a literary agent. She sold the book to Bloomsbury six months later and it became a series.
How have children’s books changed since you have been writing them?
Picture books have a sweet spot for word count: 400 or fewer. (It used to be about 800)
Hybrid novels have become commonplace; my first Ellie McDoodle book and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid landed on
bookstore shelves just a month apart in 2007 and they were similar to each other and unlike any other books on the shelves. Now there’s a whole genre of hybrid novels/comic novels/graphic novels/highly-illustrated middle-grade novels.
Animation studios closed and sent their art jobs overseas and as a result our industry is flooded with amazingly skilled illustrators. It’s very competitive now, much harder to get a book published by a traditional publisher than 15 years ago, because of the competition. Of course, there’s always room at the top: create an irresistible book and it has a better chance.
I think books are more playful now, too, and there are more that fit outside the normal boundaries for children’s books. Risks are being taken. B J Novak’s THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES (2014) is a great example.
And publishers want to make empires of series if they can. Witness THE POUT-POUT FISH by Debbie Diesen. It started as one sweet, brilliantly-written and -illustrated picture book, and now there are board books, follow-up books, activity books, stuffed toys… It’s very exciting when that happens to someone who cares very much about the craft, like Debbie does.
Are readers more sophisticated?
Definitely. What worked ages ago doesn’t work now (well, Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was ahead of its time). Dr. Seuss was brilliant, but a Seuss-like rhyme won’t sell today.
One thing steering children’s taste: schools are being pressured to push children into reading sooner, testing their skills more often, and challenging themselves until they practically fall over from exhaustion. I firmly believe children should be allowed to read what they want to read, not what hits their reading level exactly. We must instill a love for reading first, by letting them choose what to read. We can steer them toward classic books, sophisticated reads, and less exciting fare later, once that love is established. If a child wants to read CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS by Dav Pilkey, we should encourage them! It’s frustrating to sometimes hear parents say their kids can’t read my books because they’re supposed to read at, say, a 2.7 level and my book is a 2.4. Children shouldn’t know about book reading levels. They should know about reading being fun.
What role has technology played in the way you think about a project?
The goal has always been to keep readers turning the page, and to get them to reread the book many times. I don’t think that will ever change.
One good change: I can illustrate my books digitally now, and not just traditionally, with paint and paper. I can buy simulated brushes to add to my digital graphics program that make brush strokes look like they were made with real brushes on real paper. I can edit a manuscript on my phone, anywhere. But I still write longhand.
My books are available for Kindle and other tablets and phones, but I don’t consider that when writing and illustrating. Young adult books sell more on electronic devices than books for younger children.
I need to consider that today’s children are bombarded with technology at every turn. Social media matters, and if it affects my readers then I have to be up-to-date on it. Last week I visited a school where the audience and I made a story together, as we do at every school. One boy suggested the main character liked to play video games, and I was unsure how to draw our character playing a current, recognizable game. That was a fail.
Why did you pick children’s books?
I had tried comic strips and came super close to being syndicated, and the rug was pulled out from under me in the last minute. Twice. That talked me out of comic strips.
I tried rubber stamp art but they wanted me to change my style.
Books was the next thing on my list, and a friend pointed me toward some great resources (online forums for writing and illustrating) and I was hooked. I entered a contest for a children’s book contract and lost the contest but won the career.
What tip do you have for writers who want to tackle children’s work?
Read. Read. Read! Read the most recent books, not the ones you loved as a kid. Analyze what you read. Figure out why something happens on which page. Figure out what makes you stop wanting to turn the page.
Find the books that got starred reviews from the critical journals. What made those readers react so well to those books?