Hi Matt! Welcome to the PB22Peekaboo author interview! Congratulations on your new picture book. I AM TODAY arrives on January 25, 2022, with POW! Kids Books.
Thank YOU, Lisa! I appreciate it.
Tell us a little bit about the book and how you got the idea.
In the summer of 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit, I felt like I needed to write something empowering for kids; so many, including my own, had no control over what was happening. Remote schooling, video playdates, cancelled vacations.
So I began brainstorming ideas by doing attempting to come up with a non-grammatical title. I know that’s not something they usually teach in writing workshops, but I figured a non-grammatical title could be potentially very poetic and thought-provoking – and would hopefully draw attention. After all, poets are all about seeking unexpected connections through unusual wordplay! So I thought about it for a while and eventually the phrase, "I am today" popped into my head. I loved it! Once I had that to hold onto, the concept for the book came together pretty quickly: what if a child doesn't want to wait to be "the Future," in order to make a difference in the world?
You’ve been a poet for pretty much your whole life. What made you decide to turn your focus to writing for kids?
Well, I never call myself a ‘poet,’ but I have been writing poetry for a long time – my first published poem was in New England College’s literary magazine way back when I was a junior in high school, and over the years I had several adult-oriented poems published in various journals and anthologies. But every now and then I’d write a children’s poem and didn’t know what to do with it.
So in 2009, I decided to make a concerted effort to be published in children’s literature. I joined an SCBWI critique group in 2010 and went to my first conference in 2011, and after chatting at lunch with Lin Oliver and my former neighbor, the late Tomie dePaola, they suggested I get in touch with Lee Bennett Hopkins, who held the Guinness World Record for the number of children’s poetry anthologies he had created – nearly 130! Lee was instrumental in helping me get some of my poetry published (I was fortunate to be included in many of his anthologies before he passed away a couple of years ago), and he also connected me with the woman who would become my Flashlight Night editor, the incredible Rebecca Davis.
I now have more than 30 poems published in books like Lee’s anthologies, The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry, and “Highlights for Children” magazine, and 13 books either out or under contract – and my love of poetry remains strong!
You’ve had several picture books released since your 2017 debut of FLASHLIGHT NIGHT. Congratulations, by the way! Can you tell us about your path to publication with I AM TODAY? Tell us about the query process and timeline.
Well, there wasn’t much of a query process, to be honest…after I had written and polished the manuscript and knew it was ready for submission, I sent it off to my DON’T ASK A DINOSAUR editor, Jordan Nielsen, at POW! Kids Books because I had a feeling it would be the type of book she’d love. Sure enough, I emailed it at 3:30 in the afternoon and at 4:35 I had received an email back from her, telling me she wanted it! That’s the fastest I’ve ever sold a book, and I’m not sure it’s a record I’ll ever break, ha!
The path to publication, however, took much longer; the book was scheduled to be published Oct. 5, 2021, a year after I signed the contract (which is pretty fast for the publishing industry). Unfortunately, due to the supply chain crisis we keep hearing about, the date got pushed out til Nov. 30, then Dec. 21, and now Jan. 25! So fingers crossed we can celebrate next Tuesday!
Do you have any words of wisdom for authors who might be at that critical point in their publication journey?
The best advice I can give anyone is to work hard and hang in there. Like Jane Yolen says, Do. The. Work. That’s the secret behind her BIC Rule (“Butt in Chair”), and it’s a simple and effective rule. No one is more surprised than I am at how far I’ve come in just 11 years, but it’s all due to working hard – writing, polishing, submitting, networking, marketing – and not giving up. ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME went through 25 editors and agents before it was picked up by Beaming Books – so where would I be if I had quit after 24 rejections?
I play indoor soccer on two different leagues and although I’m never the most talented player on the field, I’m always running, passing, defending. I always say that my writing career is just like soccer: whatever I lack in talent, I make up for in hustle!
The I AM TODAY illustrations by Patricia Pessoa are beautiful and vibrant. How did you feel when you first saw them? Did you have any input on the story they tell? Did you include art notes with your text submission?
I loved them! Early on, Jordan sent me portfolios of several illustrators and asked whose work I preferred – for which I’m grateful, as that is something most authors don’t get to do. When I told her I felt Patricia’s style was the best for the book, she told me she had thought the same thing! So she contacted Patricia and they set to work. I had no input on Patricia’s illustrations, although Jordan kept me apprised of how they were coming along, so it was nice to see the progression from rough sketch to final art.
As for illustration notes, I try to forgo them whenever possible. In this case, all I said at the beginning of the manuscript was, “A child notices an injustice – perhaps a park being destroyed or a bully at school – and decides they don’t need to wait, to help.” That was it! I created a narrative, but the plot belongs entirely to illustrator Patricia Pessoa…
I AM TODAY is a story about a little girl who discovers pollution is threatening sea turtles in her town, she thinks about what to do, devises a plan, gets the town to join in, the beach is cleaned up and the turtles are saved, and everyone is happy at the end and the little girl is satisfied knowing she did her part to make the world a better place. Yet, NONE of that is my text! I simply created what I call a “story skeleton” to allow an illustrator to tell their own story – which helps create a perfect blend of art and text.
What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of writing for kids?
I think most authors will say the same thing: knowing kids are enjoying our stories and finding themselves in them. And not just through reading my books and poems, but through school visits; I’ve been told on more than one occasion that a child in a class has felt vindicated that it’s ok for them to enjoy writing stories or drawing pictures, rather than taking part in other more common pursuits like sports or video games.
Two years ago during the pandemic, one elementary school student was so excited after I had visited the class virtually that he told his teacher he was going to go home and write his own book – and sure enough, the next day, he brought in a stack of papers with his book written on them. He was beaming! And I was, too. After all, what better feeling can an author have?
You have another picture book coming out later this year. Can you give us a sneak peek? What else is on the horizon for you?
My next picture book will be A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BEING HUMAN (Beaming Books, 2022), and the official cover reveal will take place on KidLitTV Feb. 1! This is a book I was asked to write by my ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME editor, Naomi Krueger. I’d sent her a manuscript for a different picture book, and although she liked it she didn’t feel it would work for them – but she DID ask if I had an interest in writing a totally different book, but with the same sort of style. I said, sure!
I also have a couple of other picture books coming out next year, as well as a poetry anthology of my own, which includes some really well-known, highly-esteemed folks – I can’t wait to share more news about that!
Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed. Congratulations on I AM TODAY! We can’t wait to see it out in the world.
Thank YOU, Lisa! I appreciate it. And congratulations on LETTERS TO LIVE BY, which just came out – it sounds like such a unique and necessary book.
1/21/2022 09:01:26 am
I love this interview! Matt, you have had quite a journey so far. Congratulations on your beautiful and important new PB!
Matt Forrest Esenwine
1/21/2022 05:59:07 pm
Thanks so much, Bonnie! I'm so glad you and the Peekaboo crew like it!
Leave a Reply.