My bio in my new website mentions this fact: I never smoosh spiders. It may seem like a small and strange thing to mention, though it’s not only part of my dedication to try to do no harm, but it also seems to be an ongoing theme in my fiction.
One of my early middle grade novels, SECRETS OF THE FIRE SEASON, centers on a boy whose pet tarantula gets left behind as his house is evacuated due to approaching wild fires. For various reasons, he goes back to try to save it. Even if you’ll never get to read that one (nearly acquired once, but no cigar), in the first BEEP AND BOB book, Bob’s best friend Lani has a trio of big, pet spiders. And though Bob hates spiders almost as much as he hates space, near the end Bob is put in the position of either letting one of the spiders float helplessly into a black hole, or risking his life by trying to save it.
I won’t tell you how it ends. If a dog in a kid’s book is at risk, you’d know that its chances of survival wouldn’t be high. But a spider? They never die in kidlit, right? Um….
When the generous and talented author Tara Lazar recently posted the cover of BEEP AND BOB book one for the first time online (https://taralazar.com/2017/03/02/beep-and-bob-cover-reveal/), she asked me to write something about my writing process. Though I was tempted to be flip and funny, I decided rather to talk about a painful but true step in the creation of my upcoming chapter book series: giving up. Here’s what I said:
Thank you, Tara, for hosting the very first peek (one year before publication) at the cover for book one of my upcoming chapter book series, BEEP AND BOB (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster), which I write and illustrate.
Though BEEP AND BOB is my debut series, it is far from the first kidlit book I was supposed to publish. That honor goes to a picture book I wrote years ago. I assembled an illustrated dummy, submitted to the finest publishers (in an envelope with stamps!) and waited for greatness. Of course, for that and a second book, only rejection followed.
Luckily, around that time I found the organization SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). While networking at SCBWI conferences, I found a great community of dedicated and generous creators, always there with support. I also found an agent, who picked up my first middle-grade novel. She began to submit and got some genuine interest from well known editors. Once again, I waited for greatness. But once again, even after a couple more mg novels and some almost-sales, came our friend rejection.
Of course, this story is heading for that age-old chestnut that the key to any success is PERSEVERANCE. Try and try again, and then try some more. It’s all about dedication and endurance. However, I also discovered one new gem that, for me at least, became a crucial part of the puzzle: GIVING UP.
Obviously I didn’t give up writing or I wouldn’t be here, but at some point after being endlessly battered by the waves, I gave up in the sense of letting go – letting go of being attached to the goal of publication. I stopped struggling so much and gave myself permission to just spit out whatever wanted to come out, no matter how silly or wild. In a short time, I had a draft of BEEP AND BOB, which is about a boy who is reluctantly sent to school in space, and his lost alien buddy. I let it burst with humor and heart, which for me are the two most important ingredients of my work.
But it didn’t take much stepping back to realize that trying to sell a zany, debut, sci-fi chapter-book series about unknown characters was going to be a quixotic challenge. Rare was the agent who even said they represented chapter books (I had since left my first agent). So back to perseverance, and that horrible chore of submission that all writers know.
Luckily, this time things turned out different: I was soon signed by the awesome Natalie Lakosil of Bradford Literary, and within a month of submitting she sold it in a four-book-deal to Aladdin. Please don’t tell Natalie, or my editor Amy Cloud, that BEEP AND BOB was really just an exercise in embracing failure.
Besides Natalie and Amy, I’d like to thank Nina Simoneaux, who designed this cool cover (I provided the color character spots). Hope you enjoy! And never give up giving up.
I sometimes feel bad the kids of today don’t have all the cool things I had as a kid: Superman. Batman. Star Wars. Oh, wait…
Speaking of superheroes, I recently went on an archeological dig in my mom’s apartment in Brooklyn, and unearthed (brace yourself comic collectors!) a rare, original, unpublished Batman layout!
I didn’t say it was Frank Miller! Yes, it was I, “Jonathan Michael Roth”, who did both the writing and the “pichers”. Probably around 1st grade. Thousands of drawings later, here’s one I salvaged from early high school (I keep telling you, kids: practice, practice, practice!):
But when it comes to ancient treasures, my favorite find is what I can safely say was my earliest (around 5th grade) attempt at a novel. Did the Caped Crusader figure prominently in this tale? You bet. And like a post-modern mash-up, the Man of Steel was also a main character. But the mashing goes deeper! My story’s villain, Mr. Mxyzptlk (which I actually somehow spelt correctly, unlike ‘Metropalis’ and ‘Gothem’), in some kind of bizarre rage sends our heroes to the dark, fantastical setting of what was certainly the hippest and coolest book to any young boy reader at the time: Alice in Wonderland.
Okay, well it was the coolest book to me. So what amazing things happen to SUPERHEROES IN WONDERLAND?! Well, like with Alice, mostly talking, I’m afraid. Superman and Batman meet Tweedledum and Tweedldee. And the Cheshire Cat. And the Mad Hatter. And then the plot kind of spirals out of control and putters out after page 50 (plots are always my greatest struggle).
The amazing thing is that it’s printed in neat small printing on lined paper (Mead notebook, of course) in pencil. I was obviously way more disciplined back then. In fact, I just did a rough word count, and it clocks in at more than 10,000, which is around my current word count for each book of my chapter book series Beep and Bob.
Of course, that’s before adding the “pichers”. So write on, kids! And save all your old papers, because they just might amaze and embarrass you someday…
Winter 2016 so far: a historic blizzard followed by lots of shoveling out cars (if you could even find yours) plus one day off school, no make that two, no three, no four, count em’ five! Then I got a book deal and now it’s snowing again, which is nice because it’s a federal holiday so we won’t have to make it up during June and…
Wait, did I just say book deal? Book deal?
Maybe my brain is still half-frozen, because I seem to being seeing a listing in Publisher’s Marketplace announcing that Jonathan Roth’s illustrated chapter book series, BEEP AND BOB’S HORRIBLE ADVENTURES IN SPACE, has been placed at Aladdin Books, in a four-book deal, by the awesome agent Natalie Lakosil of Bradford Literary Agency.
In other words: time to run down the street yelling “WOO-HOO!” (Actually, the road is slushy and slick where they plowed, and more snow is falling, so maybe I’ll just emote out the front door, mindful of not startling neighbor Stu too much).
In Uri Shulevitz’s wonderful picture book Snow, a cold, gray city transforms into a bright, beautiful landscape of white. And it all starts with a single snowflake.
Writing is like snowing. First one word. Then a second. Then a third. Then they melt. But then the words start snowing again, and after years of piling and drifting and shoveling them aside, a few look like they’re finally going to stick, little black letters on a beautiful landscape of white called a book.
As a 2nd grade class was ending earlier, I noticed a kid sheepishly holding a ‘BEST TEACHER EVER’ drawing that she’d made. As I was preparing to humble myself, her classroom teacher came to pick them up, and the girl bounded over and presented her with the award.
Okay, so I’m not the Best Teacher Ever. On the other hand, I do have a drawer full of awards that, in no uncertain terms, name me as the BEST ART TEACHER EVER. Yes, that narrows it, but still. To think that of all the instructors that have ever taught drawing, painting, collage, weaving, architecture, photography, cartooning and so on, I’m the best; well, that kind of makes me blush.
(wait: does this say ‘BEAST’?)
Truthfully, these little notes and drawings are the best gifts a teacher could receive (though, to all parents, Starbucks cards are still good, too). A couple came to my desk recently that, for some reason I can’t fathom, both depict horses. One is from a current student, and one is from a student who came back from high school just to deliver it (tear). Bonus points for the fact that it looks just like the ambitious and never-realized-in-his-time sculpture of the horse by Leonardo da Vinci (my main man).