October 2023 Feature Interview with Children’s Book Author Heather Stigall, Conducted by Kidlit Writer, Blogger & Librarian Chelsea DiCicco

Hello, and welcome back to yet another wonderful Feature Interview. If this is your first time visiting, let me tell you a little about what makes these segments so unique.

What’s the big deal with Feature Interviews?

Feature Interviews are an INVALUABLE resource for writers and illustrators at every stage of their publishing journey. Not only are they a great way to stay current on market trends and learn more about the industry’s ins and outs, but they also give readers an up close & personal look at the world of publication from the perspectives of a diverse collection of creators.

Every month, I sit down with members of the writing community, and we discuss everything publishing.

Here are some of the things we talk about:

  • Writing Workshops & Resources
  • Diversity in literature and Why it matters
  • Where to find support & community
  • How to improve writing craft & set goals
  • How to deal with setbacks/disappointments & WAITING
  • Helpful tips & suggestions for aspiring authors & illustrators
  • Querying agents, contract negotiations, book deals & time frames
  • And of course- NEW BOOKS!

So, now that you know what to expect… let’s get into our interview. This month, I’m talking to Children’s Book Author Heather Stigall.

Heather Pierce Stigall: Bio

Heather Stigall uses her experience with children and her degrees in Child Development, Psychology-based Human Relations, and Social Work to create stories that speak to kids. She is the Critique Group/Meet & Greet Coordinator for the Eastern PA SCBWI Chapter, a member of the 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, and a wife and parent to five children and one pup. When she’s not writing, you can find Heather hanging out with her kids (hopefully at the beach), reading, eating chocolate, baking, or creating all sorts of treasures. Her debut picture book, PAISLEY’S BIG BIRTHDAY (Clavis Publishing) was released in August 2023 and is/will be published in five additional languages. Her second picture book, GILBERT AND THE GHOST, (Beaming Books) is due out fall 2026. You can connect with Heather through her website, HeatherPierceStigall.com, and her social media links at https://linktr.ee/HeatherStigall.

The Beginning: First Drafts & Querying Agents: Timeframe & Challenges

For a lot of us writers and illustrators who have been involved with the industry for a while, we know that publishing takes a loooong time. I mean, a REALLY long time. And waiting can be difficult.

Something common I've noticed with new aspiring writers and illustrators who are just beginning is that many  have the idea that publishing is easy, anyone can do it, and that as soon as you start putting in the work, things will automatically just take off. And of course, when that doesn’t happen, it can be discouraging. So, I wanted to start our conversation today with the early stages- the first drafts and querying.

Can you share a little bit about the beginning of your writing journey? What did your first drafts & querying stages look like?

Thank you for having me on your blog, Chelsea. You are so right! Publishing often takes a very long time, and my path to publication story is no exception. I have always loved children and picture books and even jotted down ideas for stories over many years, but it wasn’t until my youngest child was in preschool that I decided the time was right to get serious about a writing career. That was ten years ago! I started out slowly by learning about writing picture books and children’s publishing, joining SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), joining a critique group, and doing a lot of writing and revising. I gradually became more involved with the kidlit world. My first drafts were, of course, terrible. They often still are! But, over the years I’ve learned more about how to make them better, and I think the magic comes in the revision. I heard so much advice about not querying too soon, that I was nervous to query at all. But I finally felt ready when I had three picture book manuscripts that had been through multiple revisions, critiques, and gotten the stamp of approval from my critique partners.

**Ahh. Those words are so true. For anyone reading this, please take note: THE MAGIC COMES IN THE REVISION. Remember that. It will help you down the road.**

How long did it take you to finally get your agent call?

My agent and publishing journey has been quite a roller coaster ride. To summarize how I got to where I am today: 

2018 - I started querying agents. 
2019 - In addition to agents, I began querying one story to a few smaller presses who accepted un-agented submissions.
2020/21 – In addition to agents, I queried a few more stories to a few more small presses. 
March 2021 - I was offered a book contract (while I was un-agented) for PAISLEY’S BIG BIRTHDAY (expected publication date spring 2023; that got pushed to August 2023)
October 2021 - I received an agent offer (after querying a different story) and accepted; we went out on submission very shortly after.
April 2022 - While agented, I was offered a book contract for GILBERT AND THE GHOST (expected publication date fall 2024).
October 2022/January 2023 – My agent submitted another picture book to two rounds of editors.
March 2023 – My agent gave me the sad news that she decided to not represent authors any longer, but she will rep me on the story still on submission if it ever gets an offer.
May 2023 – My GILBERT editor shared cover sketches.
June 2023 – I began querying new agents; My GILBERT editor informed me her position at her publisher was eliminated; her replacement informed me the book will now not be published until fall 2026.
August to Present Day – PAISLEY’S BIG BIRTHDAY published. I’m actively querying agents, and I’m still waiting for word from a handful of editors who still have the book my former agent submitted.

I told you it was a roller coaster ride!

Whew! That's quite the list. What were some of the challenges you faced during those early stages, and how did you overcome them?

I encountered the usual challenges: struggling to find time to write, difficulty “justifying” the time and money on writing-related things on a “maybe” career; and rejection. As for how I deal with them, I have an amazingly supportive family and critique partners who have all cheered me on and helped give me the time and space I needed to devote to writing. For example, my mom took care of my youngest child at least one day a month so I could attend my critique group meetings. She gradually increased the frequency of her grandma duties so I could use that time to write. One fun thing I did, and continue to do, to help me deal with rejections is to use a “rejection jar” (I wish I knew who to credit with this idea!). Every time I get a rejection, I put a dollar in a jar. When I get a “yes,” I spend the money on something for myself. When I got my first book contract, I used the money in the jar for a massage. I got to empty the jar again when I received my agent offer and again with my second book contract. Now the jar is filling up waiting for the next “yes.”

Resources & Advice for Aspiring Writers & Illustrators

What are some of the best resources you’ve come across & how have they helped you on your writing journey?

Oh, so many! Probably the best thing I did was join SCBWI. That put me in touch with my local region of children’s writers and illustrators which opened my eyes and doors to so much more. Through that one resource, I found an amazing critique group, learned about writing and the kidlit industry by attending conferences and webinars, connected with industry professionals, and learned about many other resources out there. It also led to a fulfilling volunteer position with my region, the Eastern PA Chapter, and a great group of fellow volunteers who have become friends. As for other resources, I have actually compiled a list for children’s writers and illustrators that you can access through the Resources page of my website HERE.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently in those early stages of the writing & querying process?

I really don’t think so. Any “mistakes” I might have made along the way I consider things I needed to do to learn from them.

I love that! What suggestions would you like to share with aspiring writers and illustrators?

Rely on the four “P”s: Prepare, Practice, Positive attitude, and Persist! 

Book Deals: Time Frame & Contract Negotiations

So, we talked about the querying timeframe. Now, let’s dive into book deals. We’ve landed our dream agent- YAY! (In your case- Beth Marshea of Ladderbird Agency!) Now what?? How long did it take you to get your first book deal? And what was that process like?

As I mentioned above, my first book deal came about while I was un-agented, so I’ll share both stories about my debut picture book contract and my second book contract that came about while I was represented by Beth.

By 2021, I hadn’t had any luck signing with an agent, so I made it my goal to not only query agents but also small presses that allowed un-agented submissions. One of those presses was Clavis Books, a well-established, reputable company that publishes authors and illustrators from around the world. During the pandemic, Clavis posted several read-aloud videos, so I got a feel for their tastes and wondered if a story I had written several years prior might be a good fit for their list. I pulled PAISLEY’S BIG BIRTHDAY out of the virtual drawer, made a few small changes, and submitted it to them in February 2021. A month after submitting to Clavis, I received an email from the CEO. I scanned it quickly and read, “It is a nice and sweet story, very close to children and told from their perspective.” I expected the rest to read the typical, “but, unfortunately, it isn’t a fit for our list.” But it didn’t say that. Instead, it said, “So, we would like to consider publication.” After so many rejections, I could hardly believe what I was reading!

All the while, I was actively querying agents with other manuscripts. One of those manuscripts was about a boy who wanted to befriend a ghost he believed lived in his neighborhood. That story is the one that landed me my agent in early October 2021 and was also the one we went on submission with at the end of that same month. Beth had a couple of very minor suggestions to tweak the manuscript and the pitch, and then it was ready to go. She subbed it to a round of 11 editors. Of those, eight passed and three never responded (so we assumed passed). In February 2022, we went out on a second round to 10 editors. In March, an editor at Beaming Books said she wanted to share it with her team. A week or two later, she came back with some questions, which I answered, and then in April she extended an offer!

A lot of people who are just starting out in publishing wonder, “Why do you have to have an agent?” So, leading into that question, I want to talk a little about agents and book deals. Can you tell us, from your experience, about publishing contracts & negotiations and explain why having an agent is so important?

You certainly don’t “have” to have an agent, but being represented by an agent does have several advantages. For example, agents can submit your story to publishing houses that are otherwise closed to un-agented authors and illustrators (unless by referral or conference connection). Often these houses are the ones that offer larger advances and print runs. Agents can also often negotiate better deals than authors/illustrators can on their own. Comparing my two contracts, one with a small house that accepts un-agented submissions and the other negotiated with an agent, I can tell you that I got a better deal with the agent-negotiated contract. Part of an agent’s job is to form relationships with editors so they can get a feel for what stories might be the best fit for which editors and publishers. Plus (and I love this) the agent is the one doing the research, submitting, monitoring, following up on submissions and payments, negotiating contracts, etc., so the author/illustrator can focus on the writing and illustrating. An agent-author relationship is a partnership and, of course, I was kept aware of what was going on and had input into all the decisions made, but it was such a relief to know Beth was dealing with all the stuff I didn’t want to stress about.

Throughout the publishing process, were there any challenges you experienced? If so, what were they, and how were you able to overcome them?

I think my roller coaster timeline above covers the challenges I’ve experienced in the last couple of years. I try to have a positive attitude, and the rejection jar helps, but I also think leaning on my critique partners when I’m feeling low helps tremendously. Find your people!

Fantastic advice. I couldn't have put it any better myself. 

The Best & The Worst

If you could sum up the best and worst parts of publishing, what would they be?

Worst: Publishing picture books is very competitive. And I don’t mean in a cut-throat way at all. There are so many wonderfully talented writers out there who all want, and deserve, to have their book published. But there is only so much space on the shelf and money in the pockets of publishers, so even the best-written and illustrated story might not get into the hands of young readers.

Best: I love the kidlit community! Just about all the writers, illustrators, agents, editors, educators, and, of course, young readers that I’ve encountered have been so friendly, encouraging, and supportive. 

In your opinion, what makes the journey worth it?

I just had my book launch party and, I have to say, reading a book that I wrote to a group of children is pretty darn great!

Any words of encouragement for your readers?

Focus on the things you can control (learn your craft, write, revise, read in your genre, join a critique group, research, submit, etc.), find your community (writing partners, a support system, cheerleaders), and persevere! The only guarantee to not being published is giving up, so keep at it!

Books, Illustration & Inspiration

Okay, now it’s time to talk about my favorite thing. Books! Tell us about your books & your inspiration behind them.

The origins of PAISLEY’S BIG BIRTHDAY began nine years ago when I picked up my youngest child from preschool on his birthday. He climbed into his car seat, wearing a glittery birthday crown and a slight frown. The conversation began something like this:

Birthday Boy: “When is my birthday?”
Me: “Today!
Birthday Boy: (shakes his head) “No. When is my real birthday?”
Me: “Today is your real birthday!”
Birthday Boy: “It doesn’t feel like it.”

My mind began to spin. Why didn’t he feel like it was his birthday? Did something happen or not happen at school? What would it take for him to feel like it was his “real” birthday? A few questions later, I realized that he believed that on his birthday, he would instantly “feel” older; he would magically be able to do things he wasn’t able to do the day before. But I kept the conversation going during the ride home, through lunch, and for some time after that. I asked lots of questions and listened as he shared evidence for why it was most definitely not his birthday. I was enamored with his reasoning and determination, while underneath it all, I felt his disappointment that this day, one that was supposed to be special, didn’t meet his expectations. Not long after, I wrote a draft of a story about a bunny who hops out of bed the morning of her birthday, expecting to be all things “big bunny.”

As we know, in Kidlit, half of our story is in the illustration- so let’s talk about pictures! Can you share a little bit about your illustrators and how they helped bring each story and character to life?

Clavis always produces beautifully illustrated picture books, so I knew I would be in good hands, but I really hit the jackpot when they chose Natallia Bushuyeva as the illustrator! I think her sweet art style is the perfect fit for PAISLEY. Unlike most U.S. publishers, Clavis makes it a practice to connect author and illustrator so they may collaborate if they wish. But I have no business telling an illustrator what to do, so I put my full trust in Natallia, and I think that worked out beautifully. I only included two art notes in the manuscript, which were to suggest actions that might not be understood in the text. The publisher shared illustrations with me at several points along the way: interior sketches, first color illustrations, proposed Dutch cover, final cover, full interior, and later, the English cover and full interior. Natallia had some suggestions for tweaking the art before approving it to go to print, and I asked them to move some text to another page. Clavis agreed to all our requests. It was a very collaborative process.

Do you have a favorite spread or image in your books? Which ones and why?

I love all of Natallia’s illustrations, of course, but I guess I’m partial to the spread of spot illustrations where Paisley is getting ready for her party. I love the little details like Paisley’s face peeking through as she blows up the balloon and Pip observing nearby (with a worried expression) when Paisley spills the punch. I especially love the expression on Paisley’s face in the last vignette. Natallia perfectly captures the frustration Paisley is feeling at that moment. 

Thank you so much, Heather, for all of your insightful feedback. We’re so grateful to have had you with us today. Before we end our interview, we have one last item on the agenda. And it’s a big one…

October 2023 Giveaway Prize

This month, Heather will be giving away a choice of EITHER a signed copy of PAISLEY’S BIG BIRTHDAY OR a written critique of a fiction picture book (up to 750 words) as a giveaway prize.

How can you enter?

During the month of October 2023:

  1. Subscribe to the blog (via email or WordPress)
  2. Like this blog post
  3. Leave a comment below with your prize choice

And that’s it!

Please note: in order to qualify, you must follow 1-3 during the month of October 2023. Window: October 1st-31st. Deadline: October 31st. That means you have to get those subscriptions, likes, and comments in BEFORE November 1st in order to qualify for the October 2023 Giveaway Prize. ** If you were already subscribed PRIOR to October, you do not need to subscribe again. Simply LIKE the October Feature Interview and post your comment below.**

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Connect with Heather

Email: HeatherStigallCM@aol.com

Website: www.HeatherPierceStigall.com

Facebook: Heather Pierce Stigall

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Instagram: @heather_stigall7