The one and only Mo Willems, animation superstar turned amazing children's book author, caught in a snapshot while attending an ASIFA-East festival last decade.
Over the years I’ve flirted with the idea of trying to develop as a children’s book author. Starting in the late 90s, I illustrated a steady stream of books for Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, and Golden Books. These were all Blue’s Clues titles. This opportunity came from working on the series that spawned them. All I had to do, initially, was take a test to get on the approved list of illustrators. After that you just waited for the phone to ring.
Starting around 2004, I wrote a half dozen original manuscripts of my own book ideas, created some concept art, and submitted to an agent or two and the odd publisher. Despite some interest and encouragement, no deals were forthcoming. Then, one day I asked my friend, Mo Willems, for advice. He said that putting a viable children’s book together is much more work than people think, and advised that it’s absolutely necessary to rough out the entire book before approaching an agent.
Unlike the world of pitching animated series ideas, when it comes to children’s books, you absolutely need an agent. Publishers only want to look at books that come through agents, knowing that agents only represent books/authors that have merit and sales potential. Agents act as the buffer zone for publishers. They fend off all the "unsuitable" books that publishers don't have to see.
Once I was armed with Mo’s good advice I can’t say that followed it. Instead, I tried another handful of book pitches in my own half-lazy way with no success. Up until six months ago I would have said that my so-called attempts at cracking the world of children’s books were over. But, half the fun of a career is not being able to predict what’s ahead.
While making an original animated series pitch with a couple of partners, we enlisted a wonderful comedienne/writer/actress to voice one of our characters. I loved her voice and she loved our project (the latter of which comes in handy when you’re asking an established talent to work on spec). Half way through our production, she asked me if I would be willing to do some spec work for her, illustrating a children’s book she wanted to write. She presented two raw ideas and I picked the one I was interested in. She wrote a few drafts and I designed the characters.
A couple of months drifted by until I could jump back on the book project, but when I did I remembered Mo’s advice: “rough out the entire book before approaching an agent.”
So, I decided to rough out the entire 32 page book and take 5 or so spreads to full finished color. Laying out the book, figuring out the page flow, type design, etc., has been a blast. I see now what Mo meant. The book just isn’t there until you go through that process. Sure, there’s the “voice” of the author’s writing, but the other “voice” is how that story unfolds into a page-by-page visual experience. Why would an agent or publisher “get it” without you having done that work?
My experience finally utilizing Mo’s wisdom reminds me how often we go around collecting good advice, but so seldom use it. Still, better late than never.