August 4, 2020
Note From Rochelle
Today I’m delighted to welcome Janet Halfmann back to the blog. She last visited two years ago to talk about her book about Midnight Teacher: Lily Ann Granderson and Her Secret School. Today Janet visits the blog to talk about the power of persistence: how she finally found a home for one of the very first picture books she wrote, A Bobby-Dazzler of a Pouch!
And I say it every week, but that’s because I don’t want you to miss it. On Fridays, I post a #WritersRecommend blog post from our summer book issue!
Writers@Work: The Power of Persistence
An Interview with Janet Halfmann
by Rochelle Melander
Welcome to the blog! Can you tell us about your new book, A Bobby-Dazzler of a Pouch! and how it came about?
“A Bobby-Dazzler of a Pouch!” is the story of a little gray kangaroo who has trouble finding his mum’s pouch in a mob. To solve the problem, Joey comes up with the creative idea of asking a bird for its black tail feathers to use as little flags on his mum’s pouch. Soon all the daytime and nighttime animals want to help out, until Mum’s pouch becomes a bobby-dazzler!
This book came to be because I’ve loved kangaroos for as long as I remember. Back around twenty years ago when I embarked on being a full-time children’s author, this was one of the first fiction stories I wrote when I had free time from doing work-for-hire nonfiction educational books. In researching kangaroos, they turned out to be even more amazing than I thought them to be. The fact that mother kangaroos teach their young to dive quickly into their pouch for safety, and that babies sometimes mistake other mums or even males for their own mothers, especially intrigued me. As someone who has had trouble being able to find my way around in unfamiliar places all my life, this baby kangaroo dilemma sort of felt like my own problem.
In the beginning, this story was titled “The Very Fanciest Pouch!” and was 975 words long. A publisher almost bought it on its first trip out into the market. The manuscript was forwarded to a senior editor, but then during the review process that editor left—and then REJECTION. Over the years, the manuscript almost sold again a few times, and I never stopped believing in and loving the story. Along the way, I added Australian words and more back matter, had it critiqued a few times at SCBWI-WI conferences, and kept fine-tuning the story as I became a better writer. One critique by JoAnn Early Macken was especially helpful. Originally, I had the bird notice the little kangaroo’s problem and offer its feathers. But JoAnn suggested that Joey take charge of solving his own problem, which he now does, and I think makes the story much stronger. Now, after twenty years of believing in this story and at about 600 words, it is out in the world for all to enjoy with fun, colorful, personality-filled illustrations by Abira Das, and published by Pen-It Publications.
Your word choices in the book are just delightful! Do you have any special tips or tools for cutting all the extra words and finding just the right ones?
I find that reading what I’ve written out loud over and over and over again helps me get just the right word and rhythm. If a phrase sounds just a bit off, I keep working until it pleases my ear. I read a lot to my grandsons and we delight when we find words that make us smile. I try to find ways to do that in my own writing. I also like the Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner for helping to find more colorful and exciting alternative words. I find that reading the manuscript slowly and focusing on every word helps me to find extra words and phrases, and also words that can be more effective. Reading a printed-out version also helps me find ways to improve the story.
You’ve written a wide variety of picture books—how do you find your ideas?
Right now, my youngest grandsons, ages two and four, are one of my biggest inspirations. My husband and I spend a lot of time with them (now mostly on Zoom and Facetime) and can see what’s important in their lives and how they’re feeling about things. I have a new book coming out in 2021 from Arbordale that was inspired by our four-year-old grandson becoming a big brother, titled Yay for Big Brothers! I also find inspiration in nature, and by paying close attention to what’s going on around me. I also have been participating for several years in Tara Lazar’s Storystorm. It’s an online event in January with all kinds of inspiring posts by writers, illustrators, and other publishing professionals—and each participant comes up with thirty story ideas for the month-long event.
If I read your website right—you’ve achieved all of your success without an agent. What tips do you have for other children’s book writers who are going it alone?
It’s very tough to go it alone these days because more and more houses are closed to submissions that aren’t from agents. Twenty years or so ago when I started on this journey, it wasn’t quite as difficult and I was able to get my foot in the door with some publishers who now are closed houses. If I were starting my children’s writing journey now, I would definitely try to get an agent. In going it alone, I’m constantly on the lookout for new publishers—looking up publishers I find on awards contests such as the Cybils, on author book news on Facebook, on the SCBWI people news (before this item was deleted from the Bulletin), etc.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and miss trips to my local library to sit and read all the new picture books.
About the author. Janet Halfmann is an award-winning children’s author who strives to make her books come alive for young readers and listeners. Many of her picture books are about animals and nature. She also writes picture book biographies about little-known people of achievement. Janet has written more than forty fiction and nonfiction books for children.
Before becoming a children’s author, Janet was a daily newspaper reporter, children’s magazine editor, and a creator of coloring and activity books for Golden Books. She is the mother of four and the grandmother of six. When Janet isn’t writing, she enjoys gardening, exploring nature, visiting living history museums, and spending time with her family. She grew up on a farm in Michigan and now lives in South Milwaukee, WI. You can find out more about Janet at https://www.janethalfmannauthor.com