Here at the Los Angeles Public Library, our staff members don't just work with books—they write them, too! I had the honor of interviewing these three wonderful authors at our library who write books for children. Susan Lendroth is a public relations specialist and writes acclaimed picture books, the latest of which is Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones, illustrated by Bob Kolar. Christina Rice is a senior librarian and oversees the photo collection at the Central Library. Her many written works include numerous issues of everyone's favorite magical ponies, the My Little Pony graphic novel series. Emily Rose Oachs is part of our youth services team, which oversees the work of youth librarians throughout the entire library system. She is a prolific author of over 90 non-fiction children's books ranging in a variety of subjects from UFOs to the Donner Party. These three authors have very different perspectives on book publishing and writing, and I hope you'll enjoy their varied insights as much as I did.
How did the three of you get started writing books for children?
SL: My background has always leaned towards writing, literature, and communications—from being a high school English teacher to a public relations professional, and now combining all of the above as a pr specialist for the library. I published my first picture book in 2005 but began writing them a couple of years earlier, about the time my daughter was transitioning AWAY from picture books to other kinds of books. Maybe I missed them! I really have no other explanation why I ended up in picture books.
CR: My path to writing children’s comic books was really unexpected as I have always primarily written nonfiction. A friend of mine was editing a graphic novel called Colonial Comics and invited me to contribute a story. My husband was a comic book writer for a number of years and he encouraged me to pitch some My Little Pony (MLP) stories to IDW, who had just started publishing MLP comics (my family loves the rebooted show, so I was already really familiar with the characters). The editor at IDW liked my pitches and brought me on. I’ve ended up writing over twenty-five issues! My second nonfiction book, Mean…Moody…Magnificent! Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend (University Press of Kentucky) is out now.
ERO: In general, I’ve always loved writing and learning new things, so getting involved in this world was a natural fit. Shortly after graduating college, I landed an editorial internship with Lerner Publishing Group, a children's and YA publisher that produces both fiction and nonfiction. Because of my experience at Lerner, a friend working at another children's nonfiction publisher asked if I’d be interested in authoring some books for their upcoming series about the 50 states, and that was the beginning. I’ve authored around 90 children’s titles. Topics primarily have been in science and social studies, ranging from the rising cost of higher education to ocean animals to paranormal investigations. All of the books I’ve published have been work-for-hire, which means that I’m contracted out by publishers to write single titles or parts of series for a flat rate.
Emily, can you tell us a bit about the process of getting started on writing a book? How do you begin researching?
ERO: Much of my research is done online, through government agencies, museums, relevant organizations, specialized periodicals, and the Los Angeles Public Library's online databases and also using physical books from the library as well. I try to get a solid mix of primary and secondary sources. Visual primary sources, such as photographs or videos, are particularly helpful. When I was working on a series about sports cars a few years ago (with titles like Bugatti Chiron and Lykan Hypersport), video car reviews also were an important resource. I didn’t know much about cars going into the series, so they gave me a chance to see the cars in action. I was also able to hear how experts talked about the cars and make note of the language they used to apply to the manuscript.
In a similar vein, I listened to a podcast called “The Sasquatch Chronicles” while working on a title about Bigfoot investigations. The podcast didn’t give me any new information to add to the book, but it did give me a sense for how people fully immersed in that world talk about Bigfoot and possible sightings.
Emily, I'd love to hear more about how you choose your information resources, as disinformation is a significant issue for students conducting research. What are some things to consider and watch out for?
ERO: Find the sources that are trusted by experts in the field, and use those as starting points for your research. Checking their source notes can help lead you to other trustworthy primary and secondary sources. Also understand that even if the information is from a credible source, it may be out of date—so always try to find the most current information and work to gather your information from a variety of sources so you can verify. Overall, the most important thing is to know your sources: know who's behind them, where they get their information, how they verify it, and any potential biases they may have.
Susan, how do you get inspired, and how do you conduct research?
SL: I have a book idea list that is a mile long. Many will never be written; some are begun almost the moment I think of them. And, of course, not all manuscripts will find a publisher. I have learned to jot down ideas, or email them to myself, as soon as the first wisps appear because they are evanescent.
One book, Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep, was inspired by sitting up from a nap with the first lines running through my head: "Ocean wide, ocean deep, will you rock Papa to sleep?" I call that my backwards book because the voice and format of it germinated before I had developed a plot. Others, like Hey Ho to Mars We'll Go and Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones, center on subjects that have interested me for decades.
As for researching, the internet is my friend as well as a rabbit hole in which I can easily lose myself. I also find experts to read my draft text and point out errors, such as an engineer at JPL or a fossil preparator at the Natural History Museum.
Christina, this one's for you—how is writing for an established franchise with its own universe different from writing your own characters?
CR: The nice thing about an established franchise is that the characterizations are all laid out, so as a writer, you just need to come up with feasible scenarios and reactions for those characters. It also means there are layers of approvals to go through. For every story I pitched or script I turned in, my editor would not only have to make sure the story made sense and was well-paced but would also have to check that it fit appropriately within the MLP universe. Then, it would all be turned over to Hasbro, who had final approval on everything. There were many cases when I would pitch a story only to have Hasbro say it too closely mirrored an upcoming episode, which was always frustrating! The other fun aspect was the built-in fanbase. My husband and I would sometimes do signings together at comic book shops, and even though he was much more established than me, I was the one who usually had a line because MLP had such a large fanbase.
Christina, I'd love to hear more about what it's like to write a graphic novel as opposed to a more traditional book format. Can you share the process of working with your team?
CR: Writing in the comic book/graphic novel format is different from a traditional book in so many ways. For me, it’s like writing a shooting script for a movie, because you’re laying out all the scenes/angles through the panels. Even though the actual writing part is solitary, overall, it’s much less solitary than prose writing because there is an artist, colorist, and letterer as well.
On Ponies, I’ve worked with a number of different artists and the level of involvement varied with each one. Tony Fleecs was the first artist I worked with, who also happens to be a dear friend, so it was natural for us to be in constant contact on our issues together! Others I might not have much contact with, so my scripts might have more detail to make sure I was really conveying my intent. Agnes Garbowska was the artist I’ve worked with the most, and we really ended up being on the same wavelength, so I would get kind of lazy with the details in those scripts because I knew I could trust her instincts.
One of the things I really love about this medium is seeing how my collaborators can elevate what I’ve written. One of the issues I wrote was an origin story about Lord Tirek. I made his homeland a really barren landscape and was worried that it would look bland on the page. The final combination of Tony Fleecs’ art and Heather Breckel’s colors was anything but bland! I think it was one of the most visually stunning issues of MLP I worked on. Someone like Agnes is great at adding the subtle visuals that I wouldn’t think of. One of the books we worked on had Princess Cadance waking up in the morning and Agnes drew her with rollers in her mane, which I thought was a lovely touch. It’s a medium where the combination of talents can really result in something special.
Emily, your subject matter is often very technical and complex, ranging from books about the Aztecs to the Tesla Model S to ghosts! How do you break down difficult concepts while keeping your writing understandable for your audience? What are some things to keep in mind while writing nonfiction?
ERO: It helps that with many of the topics I write about, I don’t know a whole lot going in. So as I’m researching, I’m on a discovery process of my own, which makes it easier to navigate others through a specific topic. In general, I research a topic (for example, weather phenomena such as hail or solar storms) until I feel confident in the very core of what it is and how it happens. Then, when writing, I try to break it down into the absolute smallest pieces—almost as if you’re creating a flowchart or diagram. Depending on the audience, you can build these out to be more complex or keep it as short, simple sentences.
It also helps to put things into perspective that kids are familiar with; a giant squid might not seem particularly impressive to a kid until you show that a giant squid can grow to be the length of four basketball hoops stacked end to end. Approaching topics through a child’s eyes is also helpful. Our world is filled with so many amazing things, and each topic comes with at least one or two truly quirky or fascinating nuggets of information. I always try to highlight these to help draw a reader into the topic or get them to think about the topic in a new way. (Example: The longest lightning bolt ever recorded stretched 440 miles!) Finally, editors are truly lovely human beings who always help me strike the balance between too technical/complex and too simplistic for a book’s audience. A good thesaurus also helps.
This question is for Susan. Many of your books (Old Manhattan Has Some Farms, Hey-Ho, to Mars We'll Go!: A Space-Age Version of The Farmer in the Dell, and Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones) are set to classic children's songs. Can you tell us more about that choice and why songs and reading go hand in hand?
SL: That series of "singable science" books began with my reading an article about urban farming in Manhattan and musing to myself "Old Manhattan has some farms..." I LOVE to rhyme. Out of eight published books and a 9th under contract, five of them are in verse. Yet most publishers prefer non-rhyming texts, so I have been trying hard to write more prose (because why start the difficult submission process at a disadvantage?). However, after Charlesbridge acquired Old Manhattan, my editor there was amenable to similar books, so over the last few years, I sang a lot of nursery rhymes to myself to discover good matches for STEM subjects that interested me. Kids love the rhythm of rhyme and song. After all, SINGING is one of the best practices for early literacy.
Emily, I'd love to hear about the favorite books that you've published and why.
ERO: My two favorite go-to's are Death in the Donner Party and World War I Weapons. I really enjoyed writing the Donner Party book because its tragic outcome is fairly well known, but I wasn’t familiar with the events preceding it. It was fascinating to learn and write about each misstep they took, many based on faulty information, and each missed opportunity they had to change course that could have altered their fate. Also, when a publisher’s guidelines for a book specifically ask you not to frighten the children, it poses a particularly unique challenge. The WWI weapons title is a favorite because that war marked such a major turning point in the world. Bayonets, soldiers on horseback, and siege warfare tactics fought against machine guns, tanks, and chemical warfare.
Christina, In My Little Pony, which of the characters is your favorite? Do you have a favorite story arc or book in the series?
CR: Well, I’ve always thought that my personality was most closely aligned with Twilight Sparkle, so I would say that she is my favorite character. The Lord Tirek origin is probably my favorite story and the one I am most proud of. Plus, King Vorak, a character I created for that issue, not only paid homage to Ann Dvorak but was referenced in the second to last episode of the animated series! I was able to write a five-issue mini-series about the Cute Mark Crusaders, which was a lot of fun. I always liked writing the Friends Forever issues of the comic series and love the issue focusing on Rainbow Dash and Soarin’, which was my tribute to the Howard Hawks film Only Angels Have Wings. Another with Twilight and Cadance explored how we have the tendency to be too hard on ourselves, which was meaningful to me. Then, there are other storylines that were influenced by what my daughter might have been going through at the time, so for me, those issues represent a specific period in her life. In other words, writing My Little Pony comics has been a heck of a lot of fun!
A big thank you to Susan Lendroth, Emily Rose Oachs, and Christina Rice for their thoughtful responses and for making the book world an even lovelier place. We are so proud to have you as part of the library family. Readers, please look out for future books from these amazing authors.