Writing Children's Books with Laurie Keller
Children's Book Author/Illustrator
Laurie Keller began her career as an illustrator for Hallmark. While working on humor cards and cards for children she became interested in the world of children’s books. After her manuscript, The Scrambled States of America, was picked up by a publisher Laurie was well on her way. The Career Cookbook interview shows how you can transfer skills from one job to another, the amazing power of Oreo cookies in Laurie’s creative process, and offers advice on how to break into children’s book publishing.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in the children’s book industry?
LK: There’s a great children’s bookstore in Kansas City (The Reading Reptile) that I used to spend a lot of time in (during my Hallmark Cards years). I was blown away by all the great books! People like Lane Smith, Maira Kalman and Petra Mathers were (and still are) some of my favorites and I was very inspired by their work. I’d always loved to write and draw so it seemed like the perfect format for me.
CCB: What appeals to you about working in this field?
LK: So many things….its wonderful having a career doing something I love….that’s the main thing. BUT, there have been so many bonuses, such as doing school visits and meeting kids. I don’t have kids of my own so it’s great to get together with them to see what makes them tick. It’s also been a big bonus to have the chance to meet other authors/illustrators I admire.
CCB: How did you learn about creating children’s books? Did you acquire any of this knowledge at Kendall College of Art and Design?
LK: I went about it very haphazardly, actually. After I wrote the manuscript for my first story (The Scrambled States of America), I naively started calling publishers in NYC to try to set up appointments to meet with them. I learned later on that that’s not the way to go about it! Miraculously, four publishers agreed to meet with me (I think the fact that I worked at Hallmark at the time might have given me a little credibility). Long story short, Henry Holt wanted to publish Scrambled States and I learned at that time how to create a book. All I had sent them originally was my manuscript and a couple doodles….what a nut I was!
CCB: What did you originally hope to accomplish with your degree in Illustration?
LK: I wasn’t exactly sure. I didn’t decide on being an Illustration major until my junior year in college. I didn’t know if I had the talent to become an illustrator but with a lot of encouragement from my instructors, I decided to give it a shot. Toward the end of my senior year I was really focused on getting a job at Hallmark. The freelance and children’s books just evolved from there. Actually, even though I loved to draw and write as a child, I never realized that “regular people” like me could grow up to become authors/illustrators, so that’s another reason I like doing school talks to let kids know that it’s possible for them, too.
CCB: What is a typical day on the job as a children’s book author? Does it vary depending on what stage of the creation process you are in?
LK: Yes, a typical day is different depending on which stage I’m at, but eating double-stuf Oreo cookies is a part of any stage (What is it they put in that “STUF” that sparks the creative process??!!). The writing stage usually is a long process for me. It involves a lot of sitting there feeling stumped, writing down a bunch of babble and crumpling it up and starting over. Once I get my story idea blocked out and roughly written, I spend a LOT of time re-working it. I always look back at what I’d written before I’d made the changes and think, “Jeez, that was awful!” It’s a great feeling though to finally get the story chiseled down to where it “feels right”. When I start painting the finished illustrations, I always end up working extra-long days (about sixteen hours or so) every day for a few months until it’s completed. I always think the next time will be different, that I’ll get so organized that I’ll be able to have a normal life with weekends off, but so far I haven’t been able to do it. This next time will be different though!
CCB: Please give a brief overview of your career so far.
LK: My first actual job was as an illustrator at Hallmark Cards. I started out doing all sorts of cards but after a year or so, started doing mostly humor cards and cards for children (That developed as I started getting interested in children’s books). While at Hallmark, I started doing freelance work for various places, mostly The Kansas City Star and some trade magazines. After 7 1/2 years I decided to quit Hallmark, move to New York City and become a full-time freelance illustrator. The month before I quit I got a call from Nickelodeon Television and they ended up giving me a lot of freelance work while I lived in NYC, including some animated spots for television. And the week after I quit I got the glorious call from Henry Holt telling me they wanted to publish The Scrambled States of America! Since then, I’ve done freelance artwork for various magazines, newspapers and design firms but have recently decided to make children’s books my focus. This decision was partially inspired by a boy at a school I visited who said, “Do you mean to tell me that you’ve only done THREE books in SIX YEARS??!!!” He’s right….I need to get on the ball!
CCB: Can you talk about how your Hallmark career led you to children’s books?
LK: It was at Hallmark that I became interested in doing illustrations that were geared more for kids and once my friend brought me to The Reading Reptile (Children’s bookstore in KC) I was hooked on children’s books. Another pivotal point was when I was in a four month workshop at Hallmark and had the chance to do all my own writing and illustrating and create my own cards from start to finish. After doing that it was hard to go back to my regular job where I didn’t do as much writing. It was a year after that when I quit. BUT, if it hadn’t been for working at Hallmark, I have no idea if I’d have eventually gotten into books. I learned so much while I was there --- it was like going to graduate school. So thank you, Hallmark!
CCB: What is the process of making greeting cards? Do they suggest a topic and then let you create?
LK: It was really surprising to find out how much goes into making one greeting card! They have product planners who plan the lines of greeting cards (Individual holidays, occasions, etc.). They loosely figure out what they’d like on a card. For instance, if they’re going to have three Mother’s Day cards “From Your Son”, they don’t want them all to have vases of flowers on them, so they might plan one to have flowers, one to have a chair in front of a window, and one with a pair of dirty socks (This is why I wasn’t hired as a product planner!). Then they have one of the many staff-writers write some copy, the artist paints it, a lettering artist does the lettering (Many times, hand-painted) and then on to production. It takes a year or more before it’s an actual card. I left Hallmark in 1997 and I think they do things much differently now, though.
That process was mainly how cards were created, but they had on-going “projects” where artists could submit card ideas (With or without their own writing) and if they were accepted, they’d be turned into cards. They liked it when artists came up with ideas because the product-planners had so many cards to plan that it helped them --- and it was fun for the artist as well to have more creative input on their cards.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career?
LK: I’ve been encouraged and inspired by many people along the way, but I’d have to say my editor. She’s been so supportive in my career – her knowledge, advice and expertise are invaluable to me! My Mom has also been a big influence, always supporting me no matter what I wanted to do.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming a children’s book author?
LK: Learn as much as you can about the children’s book industry --- look at tons of children’s books to see what you like/what you don’t, take note of what publisher’s books have similar styles of writing/illustrating to yours and read books about writing (A good one: Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird….funny and inspirational). A great organization to help get you started is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I’m not a member but many people I know are members and have found it to be very helpful as far as learning about the industry and getting published. Lastly, I’d say to be persistent, work hard, and play up your own unique style and point of view. Lots of people say those things and it may sound cliché, but it’s just what you have to do.
CCB: What was the process behind your book The Scrambled States of America becoming a board game? Had you envisioned that yourself or did someone else suggest that?
LK: I had nothing to do with The Scrambled States becoming a game or puzzle. It was just a nice surprise when Henry Holt told me that Gamewright wanted to do that. The game company did contact me though and asked if I had any ideas (Which I didn’t!) --- so they came up with the idea on their own. They asked for my approval along the way but I was just so impressed how creative they were and how they came up with two games and a puzzle from my little ol’ book!
CCB: What inspires you to create? Do you pull from everyday life experiences?
LK: I’m inspired a lot by inanimate objects (Still not totally convinced even as an adult that they don’t really have feelings). I like imagining what their world might be like if they were really able to walk and talk. As far as pulling from everyday experiences… Arnie was inspired from living next to a family of doughnuts in New York City and someday I might try writing a novel based on a love/hate relationship I had with a bottle of laundry detergent.
CCB: How do your illustrations and words come together in a story? Do you begin with pictures and then come up with text or does it vary from book to book?
LK: Typically I do the writing first, then pictures. But sometimes a visual will spark an idea for a book. After I did Arnie the Doughnut, I was sitting outside trying to think of my next story idea. Nothing was coming to mind so I started doodling, filling up the page with all sorts of things --- numbers, letters, goofy people, eyeballs, etc. After I filled the page I glanced at it and saw a little person who looked like he was standing on a sideways “1”, almost like he was riding a skateboard. That sparked the idea of doing a book using numbers for other things besides counting, which became Grandpa Gazillion’s Number Yard(My 4th book).
My books usually have lots of little “asides” in them, where a character(s) throws in little tidbits of text that aren’t necessarily important to the story, but just silly jokes, etc. that a character might say. They’re not in my original manuscript but come when I’m working on the finished art, sometimes late at night when I’m tired and delirious. Those little snippets are my favorite part of writing --- unexpected jokes, etc. that pop into my head.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a children’s book author?
LK: I think you need to have a strong curiosity about the world, pretty much the way children do. Some of the best stories I’ve ever read were about everyday things/events that are suddenly funny and interesting because of an author’s/illustrator’s unique observations about it. Also, any author/illustrator will tell you (Myself included) that you have to learn how to deal with rejection letters and bad reviews and not let them get you down. I’ve learned from experience that if you take that to heart, it kills your creativity!
(Side note: Double-Stuf Oreos can help ease the pain of rejection letters AND bad reviews. Is there anything they can’t do?)
CCB: Do you really play the banjo?
LK: Yes, I do play the banjo. I started taking lessons in Kansas City about ten years ago. I don’t practice as much as I should (Should anyone really practice the banjo, though?) so I’m not as good as I’d like to be yet, but I really love playing it.
CCB: Was it a conscious decision to make your books educational as well as entertaining? It seems like you provide a lot of useful information whether talking about states or teeth.
LK: No, it wasn’t a conscious decision. The idea for The Scrambled States of America came to me one night when I was falling asleep, some little states with arms, legs and faces popped into my head. I thought it could be a fun way to teach kids about geography. Now I think about including educational topics when I can because teachers and parents have responded to that, but if I’m inspired to write about a doughnut just for fun, I roll with it (Bad pun intended).
CCB: How did it feel the first time you saw of one of your books published?
LK: WOW --- it was really incredible! But the most amazing thing was when I did a school talk and saw how kids responded to it (The Scrambled States of America). I’d never even shown it to a child and to all of a sudden be in a room full of kids who responded so positively to it was a total thrill. One little boy asked me if he could carry my book back to his classroom and he walked ahead of me carrying it and I almost started crying. It was a great moment!
CCB: Do you think you will ever write about your love of dancing?
LK: I don’t have any plans to at this point but it could happen!
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
LK: Fighting those pesky demons in my head that tell me my ideas and writing and illustrations are STUPID and POINTLESS!!!!!
CCB: What has been the coolest or most rewarding thing about the job so far
LK: By far the most rewarding thing is getting responses from kids and parents that they like my books. It’s the most gratifying thing to hear that a child connects with one of my books! Recently, a woman told me that my book, Arnie the Doughnut, was her son’s favorite book and that he insisted on having his school photo taken with Arnie (And he’s sixteen!! Nah, he’s six). I got all teary-eyed! I have the photo of him and Arnie sitting on my desk. Sometimes the whole book-making process can be frustrating but its things like that that keep me going and remind me of who I’m writing for!
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
LK: That writing for kids doesn’t take just five minutes. I’m still shocked at how many adults seem to think writing a children’s book is the easiest thing in the world because it’s for kids. Kids are a tough audience and get bored realllllllly quickly if they don’t like a story. It’s a lot tougher to entertain them than most people think.
CCB: What surprised you the most?
LK: How teachers and librarians have used my books in their classrooms and how they built lessons around them. I love that!
CCB: What do you have come up career-wise?
LK: I don’t believe I’ll be a professional banjo player any time soon, but if I ever get good enough, who knows??? I’d love to get into animation but for now I just want to create more books (Must gain approval of that boy who cursed my “only three books in six years” efforts!!!!).
*Check out Laurie's books and fun at her official web site: lauriekeller.com *