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Q&A: How one picture book author turned dream into successful publishing career

Linda Ashman's life path started out in a different direction - urban planning. But, after starting a professional career, she realized her passions lie beyond those borders and with picture books.

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Linda Ashman, children's book author
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

Linda Ashman's life path started out in a different direction - urban planning. But, after starting a professional career, she realized her passions lie beyond those borders.

In the last two decades, Ashman has published more than 30 picture pictures, including three which were just recently released and more that are in the various stages of publishing. She's also written a book with tips on writing picture books and leads programs for aspiring picture book authors.

The mom of one, who lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and son, took time out to answer some of my questions about her books, the process and tips for those of us who would love to publish a picture book. Here's our email chat!

Go Ask Mom: How did you get started with picture books? What was the process like getting that very first book published?

Linda Ashman: My writing began 20 years ago with some career unhappiness. I’d recently gotten a master’s degree in urban planning from UCLA, but wasn’t crazy about the work I was doing. In a moment of frustration, I said to my husband, “all I ever wanted to do was write children’s books!” This was a surprise to both of us, but my husband encouraged me to give it a try. I knew nothing about writing for kids or about the publishing business and spent a lot of time writing unpublishable manuscripts and racking up the rejections. But I kept learning, kept writing, and — two years later — sold my first manuscript.
GAM: You have several books that have just recently been released. Tell us a bit about them.
LA: Sure!
"Rock-a-Bye Romp" (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani) is a re-imagining of the old lullaby. I always thought it was strange to sing to your child about a baby tumbling from a tree top (not very comforting!), so I rewrote the story using the same melody but with a much cozier ending.
"Henry Wants More!" (Random House, illustrated by Brooke Boyton Hughes) was inspired by our son's toddler years, when two of his favorite words seemed to be “More!” and “Again!” Everything was so new and fun and exciting, he just wanted more of it — which, for a parent, is both exhilarating and exhausting.
"All We Know" (HarperCollins, illustrated by Jane Dyer) is basically a love song to nature and parenthood. It’s about things that animals and the natural world just “know” how to do — like clouds knowing how to rain, bulbs knowing when to bloom, and birds knowing where to fly when the seasons change — in the same way parents know how to love their babies.
Then there’s "Hey, Coach!" (Sterling, illustrated by Kim Smith), coming out this August, about a young soccer team and all the mishaps and excitement they experience in their first season.

GAM: As you write books, who are you keeping in mind - the kids or the parents or both?

LA: Both, definitely. As a picture book author, the first thing you ask when starting a story is: Would a kid be interested in this? But much of what I write comes out of my experiences as a parent — the funny stuff, the love, the conflicts and chaos -- the sorts of things I hope will resonate with other parents. I also think about the eventual illustrator: Does the story offer enough action and variety to make it visually appealing?

GAM: Who are some of your favorite picture book authors? Who do you look up to?

LA: So many! As someone who frequently writes in verse, I’m a big fan of Mary Ann Hoberman and Karen Beaumont for their rollicking, pitch-perfect rhyme. Other favorites are Bonny Becker, David LaRochelle, Melanie Watt, Susan Meddaugh, Maira Kalman, Phyllis Root, Deborah Underwood, Marianne Dubuc, and Mo Willems (to name just a few). I also admire my fellow writers and illustrators at PictureBookBuilders.com, a group blog I contribute to monthly where we feature recent picture books we like. There are so many illustrators I admire too, but the list would be way too long to include here.

GAM: You also lead writing workshops and presentations. What are your top tips for aspiring picture book authors? What do you wish you knew when you started out?

LA: My first bit of advice, always, is to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators They have all sorts of helpful information and resources, plus a network of regional chapters — including a terrific one here in the Carolinas. SCBWI has a huge national conference every August in Los Angeles, and the Carolinas chapter offers one in late September. Both are excellent opportunities to learn, connect with other writers, meet agents and editors, and get your work professionally critiqued.

Second, if you want to write picture books, be sure to read lots of them — especially those published in the last several years. One of the best bits of advice I ever received was to type the text of really good picture books into the computer, then do a word count. It’s really eye-opening to see how spare the text is and how the illustrations fill in so much of the story. Not sure which books to read? We offer twice-weekly recommendations at PictureBookBuilders.com.

As for what I wish I’d known when I started out — a lot! So much that I put everything I’ve learned over the years into "The Nuts & Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books," a handbook I offer from my website and Amazon. I’ve also got more writing tips and resources on my website.

GAM: What are you working on now?

LA: I’m in the process of revising a manuscript I just shared with my agent, Jennifer Mattson of Andrea Brown Literary. And we’re waiting to hear from editors about another one she sent out several weeks ago. Then I’ll need to come up with a new project — always the hardest part for me.
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