Q&A with New York Times Bestselling children’s picture book author Pat Zietlow Miller
The local author added two new releases this month to her published stack of 15 titles, and more are on the way.
Madison author Pat Zietlow Miller always wanted to write picture books. When she was just a 19-year-old college student, she sat down at her Electrolux typewriter and gave it a shot. This was before the internet — researching a path to publication wasn’t quite so easy. But she tracked down a publisher’s address in a book and shipped her manuscript off. When she got a form rejection back, she shrugged — that was that, she guessed.
“So then for the next 20 years, I read picture books, I loved picture books, but I didn’t think too much more about writing picture books,” says Zietlow Miller, who acquired a husband, two daughters — (“I bought them picture books before I bought diapers,” she says, laughing) and a passel of cats over the years as she pursued first a newspaper career and then a corporate writing one. But when she turned 39, something happened.
“I thought, well, if I look back on my life when I’m 85 and say, ‘What would I regret the most?’ The answer was not trying really seriously to pursue getting a picture book published,” she says. She became dogged in her pursuit, swearing off TV to write late into the night after the kids were in bed before getting up to work all day each morning. For the next four years, she wrote and submitted draft after draft, amassing an impressive 126 rejections — until that glorious day came, in 2011, when she sold her first book. “And then I got an agent, and then my career, just like, took off,” she says.
That might be an understatement. Since that 2011 manuscript was published in 2013 — “Sophie’s Squash,” about a little girl that falls in love with a butternut squash and carries it around like it’s a baby until it starts to rot — Zietlow Miller has sold 23 manuscripts. Fifteen have been published as of today, including her two latest releases this month, “When I’m With You” (Mar. 1) and “In Our Garden” (Mar. 15). Three more are expected out yet this year with another five to follow, and she works with several different publishers and illustrators. After hitting the New York Times Best Sellers List, Zietlow Miller was finally able to quit her corporate job in June of last year to write full time. To keep up with Zietlow Miller’s rapidly growing list, visit her robust website.
What is it about picture books that so captivates you?
I think they’re this perfect little art form, these jewel boxes of creative work. They’re small, they’re concise, but yet they’re gorgeous if they’re done well with the beautiful art and the perfect text that work together to tell the story. And that can be for kids, obviously — but I think really well-done picture books are for anyone because they’ve got that sort of universal heart or universal truth in them. Where anyone can read them and go, “Oh, I felt that way, I get that.” And that’s what I’m always trying to do is write the picture books that kids will like and want to read multiple times, but that any adult who reads them will go, “I’ve been there, I get that.” Because emotions are universal, no matter whether you’re 4 or 94. You’ve felt left out. You’ve felt lonely. You’ve felt hopeful. You’ve felt loved. You’ve felt all of these things. And I think that’s what a really good picture book taps into and reminds people of that common emotion or emotional life that we all have.
On March 1, you and illustrator Eliza Wheeler released “When I’m With You” from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. What is it about?
“When I’m With You” is a book about friendship. About that special person in your life who just gets you no matter what, your ride or die bestie. And that one rhymes — and I don’t normally rhyme, but sometimes I do, and rhyming makes it much harder, so I’m very proud of how the rhyme turned out. I actually got the idea while I was taking a shower, all of a sudden the first lines just popped into my head. So I took a longer shower than normal and then I sat down and I started writing. And then I had way too much, so I had to pull it back in, but those opening lines stayed: “It’s something that I’ve noticed / perhaps you’ve seen it too / life is so much better / when it’s me and you.”
On March 15, you and illustrator Melissa Crowton released “In Our Garden” from G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers. What is that about?
It’s the story of a girl who comes to America from “a country that’s more than an ocean away” and she’s living in an urban area and there’s no garden. And so she misses that and she thinks her school has a roof that would make a good garden, and so she suggests it in class and then the whole school and the community come together to make this garden. And so it’s a story of what it means to be home, blooming where you’re planted — because as the garden grows, so does the girl in terms of fitting in in her new home. And it’s a story of a community coming together to create something that wasn’t there before. So I like the layers in that story.
This one was a different experience. Normally I write a book and then I send it to my agent and she sends it out to editors and we hope somebody likes it. But “In Our Garden” came about because an editor that I had worked with before reached out to my agent with an idea to do a book about rooftop gardens and wondered if I would want to write it. And so that one was more like an assignment, and I’m the world’s worst gardener. Anything I try to grow dies, I can’t keep houseplants alive. But I did a ton of research about schools that had rooftop gardens. And some stories come right out, but this one I ended up revising 24 times over the course of a year to get the structure right. In the end it became free verse but initially it was separate poems, and I tried writing it in third person, and I tried writing it a lot of different ways before it all came together.
Now you have three more coming out this year. How are you able to publish so many?
“Not So Small” is coming May 3 with illustrator Paola Escobar, it’s about how even folks who feel small can change the world. “See You Someday Soon,” a guide to loving someone far away, with illustrator Suzy Lee, will be out June 14. And “Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules” with illustrator Joe Cepeda, about finding your inner rock star, is coming June 28. It is a lot but I wrote them at different times over the course of years and my agent sold them at different times to different publishers. Each publisher has their own schedules, mostly dependent on how long it takes to get the illustrator and when that illustrator can start working. And so it was just some weird configuration with the planets that had five releasing this year but I’m always working on several books at once and the publishing process for each takes 1-2 years.
What is that relationship with illustrators like, and what is it like to see your story interpreted through their art?
That is something that most people are the most stunned about — I’ll sell the book to the publisher, and the editor and the art director will get together without me in New York and decide on an illustrator. Sometimes they’ll send me options but other times they just make the decision and tell me, and then I don’t really interact with the illustrator at all, they’re off doing their thing. I’ll see sketches and proofs, and I weigh in if something is factually wrong in the art or if I’m really really confused, but otherwise I don’t because I totally respect their talent that I don’t have. And I’ve never been disappointed. Because a really good picture book artist adds so much to the story. There’s almost an entire additional story going on in the art that the text doesn’t reflect, which gives the story a lot more layers. I love seeing what they did and what they added. With some of my books that have been out for years, I’ll look at them and I’ll see things in the art that I’ve never noticed before because the level of detail is so amazing. And for the kids, I’ve found when you read picture books to kids, they listen to the words but they’re really looking at the art. And I’ve had kids point out things in my art that I had never really seen before, like this little thing in the background. So art is such an important part and it’s what makes people pick up the book at the bookstore, too. It’s the color and the art — they aren’t going, “I just know there’s going to be good words in there.” So it’s a really important part and I love seeing what these people can do that I can’t.
What makes a well-written picture book then?
Most picture books are 700 words at most, and every word has to be there for a reason. You can’t digress or go off on a tangent. Backstory doesn’t matter, there are no prologues. And if you mention something once, you’ve got to bring it in two more times to have the story wrap up with a neat little bow. So, most of the time I’ll get an idea and write a draft, then the success comes from the revision, where you sit down and go, OK, how am I going to weave this ribbon through the story so that it all ties up at the end and every piece is in the exact right spot, tight and compact so that at the end there’s this very satisfying feeling of everything coming together? That’s where my newspaper experience is helpful because back in the days of print, your news column was 12″ and your story had to fit that no matter what. So I love going in and taking out any excess words that I possibly can and making it tighter, tighter, tighter. So much of my time is spent polishing and refining and asking myself, “What is the absolute best word to use here?”
At the same time, it needs to speak to kids on a level that isn’t condescending. How do you do that?
I think good picture book writers really remember what it was like to be a kid. The depth of the feeling you had. I’m sort of a sensitive person and even as a kid I remember having these big feelings, you know? So tapping into that — as an adult, you get some perspective and understand things are going to be fine, but as a kid, those things are a really big deal. I also observe kids and even their parents a lot, keep track of little bits of conversation from one checkout lane over or in the events I do at schools and things, always thinking, “Oooh, I could use that.” But most of the time I’m writing because of a feeling I want to explore. I really do think that the heart of all successful picture books is some kind of feeling.
Do you have any favorite or memorable moments of ways people have responded to your work?
“When You Are Brave” is one of my more emotional books. It’s about all the times in life when you have to kind of dig deep and find courage. I’ve heard from a lot of parents saying they’d bought it to help their child who was anxious or scared, and then they’re reading it in the checkout line and start crying because it spoke to them as an adult. Those are probably my favorite examples, where the book speaks to people on multiple levels. I also love hearing how teachers use it in their classrooms. A lot of times they’ll send me pictures or tag me in a social media post, it’s a really cool thing. Especially my first book, “Sophie’s Squash,” I get so many pictures and videos that I set up a Facebook page just for that book. It came out in 2013, but as recently as last week someone sent me pictures of their child clutching a butternut squash. Or they’ll send pictures of a kid pushing it in a stroller, or sleeping next to it — those get me right in the heart because the book was inspired by my youngest daughter, who carried a butternut squash around. She’s 20 now and she turned out fine [laughs].
Are all of your books for the same age group of readers?
Almost all of them are for ages 3-8, although I’ve got one historical fiction picture book that gets used with older kids a lot because it’s a bit more in depth. But my big thing is that picture books are for everyone. I know of middle school teachers who read their kids a picture book a day to use as a conversation starter and the kids love it. I’ve heard from senior centers that have used my books with elderly residents. And a couple of my books get used as graduation gifts for high schools quite extensively, so I am just such a proponent of the right book for the right person, and just take age out of the picture.
Well graduation season is coming right up and I know you always try to lift up other authors as well — what do you recommend?
If you want one of my books, “Wherever You Go” is the one that almost always gets used as a graduation gift because it’s about setting out into the world on an adventure. But there are other really great options as well. I really love “Wherever You Go — I Wish You More” by Amy Krause Rosenthal and “The North Star” by Peter H. Reynolds.
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