Longtime School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird, the New York Public Library’s youth materials collections specialist, can add published author to her name this year. Her festive debut picture book, Giant Dance Party (HarperCollins, 2013), is about a girl who overcomes her stage fright by teaching blue fuzzy giants how to dance. SLJ caught up with Bird recently to discuss her unique path to publication, how her work as a children’s librarian informed her experience as a first-time author, and whether Lexy and the giants will be making a repeat performance.
Can you tell us about your path to publishing Giant Dance Party—from writing the manuscript to publication?
It all began in 2009. I had already intended to write a picture book, but I’m the kind of person who waits for the universe to dump something directly into my lap, which is exactly what happened. So when they give people advice about how to get a picture book published, don’t listen to me. My story is strange and wonderful. I found an email from the illustrator Brandon Dorman. I love his work so much. I had mentioned him several times on my blog, and included him on an end-of-the-year roundup list of best book jackets for his work on Jack Prelutsky’s The Wizard (HarperCollins, 2007). He’s just the nicest man ever born. Brandon emailed me and said, ‘Hey, let’s do a picture book together. You write and I’ll illustrate.’ He just had one stipulation: ‘I want to do giants leaping.’
And I responded, ‘Ok!’ We came up with three different picture book ideas, all of which involved giants leaping in some way. He presented them to his editor at Greenwillow, and they picked up two of them, which was remarkable! I got my full two-book deal.
Brandon is the [busiest] man in the world. He does the covers for all of the good books out there, like the “Fablehaven” series (Atheneum), and pretty much every fantasy title on the shelves today. We just couldn’t schedule it. Then our editor left Greenwillow, and whenever that happens you’re left in limbo. We ended up with Virginia Duncan, who turned out to be a godsend. She took one look at my manuscript and said ‘we’re going to have to make some changes.’ And thank God she did; she had the greatest notes. When we began the project, the giants were gross and disgusting, like typical giants. And now, they’re furry and blue. There’s something about furry blue giants that kids adore. I hold up this book in front of kids and they just gravitate towards it like nothing else. The giants’ clothes have never changed, but the giants themselves have become seriously fuzzified.
That took about four years, then.
There were a lot of starts and stops along the way. And then publication dates get pushed back. You think you’re coming out one season and woops, no, you’re coming out on another season. As it turned out, my 35th birthday was the book release day, so it was fate. It was ‘happy birthday to me.’
What was it like working with Brandon Dorman as an illustrator, especially with your unique relationship?
Usually you submit a manuscript to a publisher and the publisher pairs you up with an illustrator. Author and illustrator usually have no contact at all, working separately with their own edits. Our [collaboration] was very strange in a way. He would send me sketches of what he was thinking of, and I would email him storylines. A few things changed without us being in contact. The blue furry giant thing happened when we were between editors. I didn’t have much say in that, but I was very happy with it. It worked out incredibly well.
And I don’t know how often this happens, or just that Greenwillow is very invested in the quality of their books, but they had me go through the art when it was almost done and I was able to give notes. For example, at one point Lexy was writing with yellow paint, and I couldn’t see the letters very well. And I mentioned that I’d like a little multiculturalism in a scene with a group of girls, and they changed that. I was allowed to make changes to the art because Brandon is a digital artist. That would not have been possible, or even an option if I was working with someone like Paul Zelinksy, who works with more traditional methods.
Do you think your work as a librarian informed your experience as a debut author?
Absolutely. On the one hand, it informed the writing. The book had to be something that could be read aloud. Not every book has to be read aloud to a large group, but it really helps, particularly when you’re doing bookstore appearances. I’ve seen authors and illustrators use PowerPoint, music, and all sorts of things for presentations. I knew that it would just be me reading the book. I do involve furry blue dance warmers and have kids do a dance party, but I needed the words to work. It had to be a story I could read aloud over and over, so that a parent could potentially read it over and over, and not get sick of it.
On the other hand, I was prepared to read in front of groups, because as a librarian I have to do storytimes as part of my job. So far, I’ve had to share Giant Dance Party to classes of three-year-olds one day, and a group of eight- and nine-year-olds the next. And I also have read for adults. You have to be able to read for any group. And each time you have to do it in a different way, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have my children’s librarian experience. They don’t tell you that to publish a picture book you have to be a performer.
Tell me a little bit about your life after publication. What kind of promotion did you have to do?
For all that I do promoting other people, it is hard to promote myself. It’s hard to go out there saying: ‘Look at me. Me, me, me.’ I kind of already do that in my line of work, but when I usually promote myself, I’m also talking about library events or free programs. But this time is different, because I’m asking people to spend money on me. There’s actually a really good blog, called The Shrinking Violets Promotions, done by two authors who were really shy in terms of self-promotion, which focuses on very simple things that writers can do.
Slowly, I’ve been getting more comfortable with it. It’s fascinating what now constitutes book promotion. Of course you have to make your book video, so I made four. And they involve me being a giant and demonstrating the four different dances highlighted in the book. That was fun. And the publisher had a request that didn’t occur to me: create a Pinterest page for Giant Dance Party, so I did that. I had never created a Pinterest—let alone Tumblr—account. Now these are things that you kind of have to do. My sister made me a website, which is fantastic. On it, I have a teacher’s guide, and recently my publisher asked me to add Common Core guidelines, which I will be doing next. That’s the advantage of being a librarian: I have access and knowledge of these things already.
Now that you’ve had a picture book published, does it change the way you review books on your blog?
Book reviews are a huge part of my blog. There’s another dance picture book this year called Flora and the Flamingo (Chronicle, 2013) by Molly Idle. I had to stop myself from saying, ‘if you buy only one dancing picture book this year, buy that one’ and say instead, ‘if you buy two dancing picture books, buy mine and Flora’. And that’s what I’ve done at my appearances: share related picture books about dancing, parties, and giants. I usually suggest titles like Flora and Jack Prelutsky’s Awful Ogre’s Awful Day (Greenwillow, 2001).
In terms of how I review picture books, my respect for published authors has increased tenfold. You can respect how well an author does something, but until you try to do it yourself, you really don’t respect them enough. My appreciation has also increased for writers of easy readers. It’s like writing a haiku. If you can write a good easy reader such as Mo Willems’s “Elephant and Piggie” titles (Hyperion), then you are a god, as far as I’m concerned.
What would you like children and parents to take away after reading Dance Party?
The book is based very much on my own youth. I took ballet and Scottish dance classes as a child. Lexy, the main character, has stage fright, and is afraid of performing on stage. She finds a way to overcome her fear by helping other people. Dancing with a group was not a problem for me, because on the stage you can’t see the faces in front of you. I didn’t suffer from that particular stage fright, but I was afraid of speaking in public. I want people to take away from the book the fact that these things can be overcome. If you have a fear of some sort, you’re not stuck with it for your entire life. Lexy as a character is very proactive. She thinks that she’s avoiding the problem, but in fact it’s leading her to the solution. And I think that’s actually not a bad way of tackling your problem: hitting it from a different side.
I can’t imagine you having stage fright.
Isn’t it crazy? I was the quietest. In school I never said a word in class. Even now, if you put me in a classroom setting, I never will speak. It’s sort of a holdover. It took me a long time to get over that. I credit librarianship for helping me break out of my shell.
How did you come up with the name of Lexy?
I have a niece named Alexa. The main character was named Alex at first, and then I realized that it was probably not a good idea. She was much younger when I first started the book, but she’s going to pass out of the picture book world very soon. There’s a reason writers don’t put their nieces, nephews, or children’s names into books. I didn’t want to set a precedence for my kids, who would one day ask me, ‘Why is my name is not in a book? You put Alex’s name in the book.’ So I amended it slightly. Let’s just hope that my daughter never catches on to that.
Will we be seeing Lexy and the giants on another adventure?
Probably not with the giants. Spoiler Alert: There are leprechauns at the end of the book. And when they get to the end of it, kids assume that there will be another story, and it will involve leprechauns. But not all books with an ambiguous ending lead to a sequel. Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Hyperion, 2003) ends with him seeing a truck and wanting to ride it, but there is no sequel with him driving a truck. There are definitely more picture books in my future, but I don’t know if it will be a sequel. We’ll have to see.