Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Author Spotlight on: Barbara Jean Hicks

Vacations are over way too soon! But I'm glad to be back home and excited to have this interview with author Barbara Jean Hicks.

My daughter loves cats. So when we discovered THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER KITTY at the book store, it had to join our "cat book" collection. I didn't know Barbara Jean at the time, but somehow through the Central Coast listserv, we started emailing. Don't you love how the internet works that way?

Her new book, MONSTERS DON'T EAT BROCCOLI, came out last month and her publisher was kind enough to send me a copy. One of you lucky readers will get to win it! But before we get to the giveaway, here's a bit more about Barbara.

You started off writing romance novels. What made you switch to writing picture books?

I started writing romance novels because a friend asked me to help her rewrite one she’d been working on. It had been rejected numerous times, but she still believed in it. I had never even read a romance novel, but I started reading the ones she suggested and had a go at the manuscript. We sold it in six weeks, and they wanted more! So of course I had to keep at it. I ended up publishing one more romance with my friend and 11 more on my own.

But my heart was never really in it. I’d always loved children’s books and thought if I ever wrote for publication that’s what it would be. So when a particularly snide librarian wrote in a review of one of my romantic comedies that I “really ought to be writing for children, as no one else could possibly appreciate such silliness,” I took it as a sign and started work on a book about my cat. It wasn’t very good—or at least not very saleable—but eventually it became THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER KITTY. It took four years and the publication of three other picture books before I finished it and sold it to Knopf.

Romance novels and picture books are like two different worlds. How did you get your foot in the door for children’s books?
I sold all my romance novels without an agent, but I’d been told that was going to be harder to do with children’s books. I was on a romance writers’ listserve, and someone had posted a link to an interview with a brand new agent who was looking for authors in all genres, including children’s. She agreed to take me on. She sent my first finished manuscript, JITTERBUG JAM: A MONSTER TALE to 22 U.S. publishers before she finally got a bite from Hutchinson Children’s Books (Random House UK) in London. I’m afraid I would have given up on it long before. I did six months of revisions before they offered me a contract, but I was happy to do it! The agent and I have since parted ways. She is wonderful, but her focus is romance and “chick lit,” which I’m not really interested in writing any more.

How does being an author for children differ from your experience as a romance novelist?
Children’s authors get more respect! Crazy, isn’t it? There are some excellent romance authors out there and I don’t think I was half bad myself—despite what that nasty reviewer had to say. But I do feel as a children’s author that I get to exercise my creativity in a different way, and for me, in a way that’s much more fun than writing novels. Picture books are a lot like poetry, in that every word is important and the sound of the words is important. I love finding the exact word that makes a line in a picture book work, and knowing that no other word would work in quite the same way. That feeling is so pleasurable. The act of writing picture books makes me happy in a way that writing novels didn’t. They are both hard work, but for me, picture book work is fun work. Plus, I love that “silliness” can actually be a compliment in the picture book world.

Do you think you’ll ever write adult novels again?
I won’t say never, but the novel form has become more difficult for me since I’ve been writing picture book texts. I’ve tried to start a children’s novel a couple of times and I never get past about 20 pages because I can’t stop myself from going back over every sentence again and again, trying to experience the pleasure of finding the perfect words for every sentence. You can’t write a novel that way. You don’t have time! So unless I can figure out how to write a first draft of a novel without obsessively revising as I go along, I don’t know that I even CAN write an adult novel again. On the other hand, there are adult themes I’d like to explore, so perhaps some day…

I love how your current book, MONSTERS DON’T EAT BROCCOLI, came about. How surprised were you to have the illustrations before the story? Was it more difficult for you working that way?
This was actually the second time an editor had sent me sketches and asked me if I could come up with a story for an illustrator’s characters (the first time didn’t come to anything). But yes, it was a surprise. And no, it wasn’t at all difficult to work from the illustrations. I’m extremely visual, and every one of my picture books so far has been inspired by an image. In the case of BROCCOLI, it was Sue Hendra’s friendly, goofy monsters that inspired me.

Once you saw the illustrations, how long did it take for you to write the story?
I played around with ideas for a couple of weeks, but once I realized that Sue’s trees looked to me like broccoli, the text came in a week, with very little revision.

How long do you typically take to write a PB?
I don’t think there is a “typical.” WALTER KITTY took four years and BROCCOLI took a week! Two of my first three published books took about six months each (with myriad revisions), the other a couple of weeks. Those are my published picture books. I have a lot of others that have been filed away for years, already gone through many revisions and that may go through many more. I don’t easily give up on an idea.

MONSTERS DON’T EAT BROCCOLI is your second book about monsters. Were they an issue for you as a child?
Not that I remember—but it does seem odd that out of five books, two deal with monsters. The monsters in both JITTERBUG JAM and BROCCOLI are exceptionally gentle and likeable creatures, though. I like to write about topics in a way that challenges the ordinary way of looking at things, and monsters are good for that. Everyone knows that monsters are ugly and scary…or are they? What is a monster, really? It’s all about perspective.

What is your favorite vegetable?

Asparagus. I especially like it snapped into smallish pieces and combined with sliced onions, mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers and zucchini, tossed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and roasted in the oven. Mmm!

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER KITTY is one of my family’s favorite books. I swear our cat thinks he’s Fang as well! Are there any more Walter Kitty books in your future?
I have been asked this question so many times—usually by kids after I’ve read the story to them—that I wonder if I ought to start paying attention. My fabulous illustrator for WALTER KITTY, Dan Santat, is in such demand these days I don’t know if he’d be available to do the artwork—and Walter wouldn’t be Fang without Dan. But it’s a thought…

What are some of your favorite books for children?
Four wildly different picture book favorites are the classics WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (Maurice Sendak) and THE CAT IN THE HAT (Dr. Seuss), Sandra Boynton’s rollicking BARNYARD DANCE and the gorgeous AN EGG IS QUIET by Dianna Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long.
Barbara Jean Hicks published 13 romance novels and novellas before completing her first picture book, JITTERBUG JAM, in 2001. It was published in England in 2004 and the United States in 2005. MONSTERS DON’T EAT BROCCOLI (Knopf 2009) is her fifth picture book. She is grateful to have been paired with incredibly talented illustrators for each of her books, but also hopes one day to illustrate a book of her own. Visit Barbara at

Tomorrow, as part of Barbara Jean's blog tour,Terry Pierce will interview Barbara's editor, Erin Clarke
If you'd like to win a copy of MONSTERS DON'T EAT BROCCOLI, let me know in the comments. Followers get an extra entry. Winners will be chosen on Monday through Random Name/Word Picker.


Susan R. Mills said...

Great interview. I'm amazed that Barbara was able to switch gears like that. Thanks for sharing.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Really enjoyed this interview, and it is refreshing to hear about an author writing what she finds fun and where her heart is. Love those books covers, too.

Kimberley Troutte said...

Barbara Jean and Sherrie,
great interview! I love how an author can be really good at writing in one genre--Romance--and be able to switch to a cmpletely different genre--children's picture books. I also love that you have found your joy, Barbara Jean. Keep writing.

Cathe Olson said...

That was so interesting -- I had no idea that Barbara was previously a romance writer. I can't wait to see the new book. Please add me to the drawing.

C.R. Evers said...

What cute titles and awesome illustrations. Great interview. I'd love to win a copy. My kids would love it!

Sherrie Petersen said...

Susan: I think it's awesome that she's had success in more than one genre.

Tricia: She has great book covers. And it's good to know you can find success with something you love.

Kim: I knew the romance/chilrdrens author would appeal to you. Someday it will be you!

Cathe: Glad you learned something new -- and your name is in the drawing.

Christy: Barbara has gotten to work with some of the best illustrators, hasn't she? Your name is in the drawing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview. I'd love to win a copy! As an aside I've known Barb Hicks for many years (she and I were in a critique group together), so I know for a fact that her ideas for novels for young people are fabulous! I hope she'll decide to follow one of them to the end someday.

Stephanie Faris said...

Monsters Don't Eat Broccoli? I'm LOVING that title! Great interview.

Barbara Jean said...

Sherrie, you are such a great interviewer! You did your research before you sent me your questions, which made it more interesting for me and for your readers too. Thanks to all who made comments. Keep doing what you love to do. :-)

Sherrie Petersen said...

Anon: I'd love to enter you in the drawing. Send your name to solvangsherrie at gmail dot com. Thanks!

Stephanie: Isn't it a great title? Cute book, too :)

Barbara Jean: You were a fun interview. Plus I scored big points with my kids now that I "know" the author of Walter Kitty!

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent interview! Such cute books.

Kelly H-Y said...

I LOVED this interview ... it made me feel so hopeful and good ... and not crazy that one of my PBs took, literally, a couple days (not including minor revisions), and another took 9 months of gut-wrenching! Her books sound fantastic ... I don't know how I've never heard of or stumbled across them! Thank you! I'd love to be entered into the drawing.
By the way ... welcome back from vacation ... hope you had a fabulous time!

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

yay you are back! Great interview.

Beth Kephart said...

oh my gosh. to teach oneself a genre, to excel, then to move to one's passion.

a great interview!

Corey Schwartz said...

OMG, the illustrations came first? Never heard of that! How interesting.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

That was a super interview. Very interesting how Barbara was able to switch from an adult genre to children's stories.

I'm new to your blog, but will be back again for sure.

Gwen said...

Love FANG. All of Barbara Jean's books are delightful and fun.

Pam Calvert said...

I wanna be Barbara Jean!!! (Love all her work!!!)

Thanks for this. :-D

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