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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Teaching Children with Writing: Author Interview with Kat Michels

What inspired you to write your books for children?
I wrote my first children's book, Children Have Got to Be Carefully Taught, as a baby shower gift for my sister's first child. Originally I had planned to write something cute, do some rudimentary drawings myself (stick figures), get one copy printed and give it to her. However, I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so as I worked on the verse I kept asking people to read it and tell me what they thought. Each of these people then asked if they could get a copy once it was published. When I told them that I wasn't planning on publishing it, they were aghast.
After about the 10th person to have this reaction, I realized that I had more than a baby shower gift on my hands, and my illustration skills would not be adequate. Thus began my search for an illustrator. Long story short, I missed the baby shower by a long shot (eight months), but Children Have Got to Be Carefully Taught made a great present for my nephew's first Christmas. I've continued in this genre because the English language fascinates me, and I get to play with language in a children's book in a way that I don't get to in other genres. I can set up whatever parameters I want - rhyming schemes, syllable restrictions, couplets, etc - and then I get to play with words. For me, writing a children's book is like a big puzzle, and if I can put together the right words, a beautiful world will be revealed.

How long did it take to write your first draft?
I wrote my first children's book over the course of a week. It took me six months of tweaking/rewriting before I had the finished text. My second book, 10 Cheeky Monkeys was created on a similar timeline. I find that at a certain point, I have to set the text aside and not look at it for a week or two. Only after a break, am I able to see it afresh and really hone the verse.
I am also finishing up my first adult novel, and that one took me five years to finish the first draft. While there are a few similarities in how I approach working on the two different genres, they definitely make me flex different muscles in my brain. It's a fun challenge.

Who encouraged you along the way to complete the first book?
As my first book was meant as a gift, no one knew I was writing it so I was going solo. As I started to show it to friends and coworkers for feedback, I got some encouragement from them, but overall it was a solo mission.

Prior to writing these children’s books, what was your publishing and writing background? 
I've been writing my entire life. I had some poetry published in high school and wrote a play in college that was produced. Other than that I kept everything I wrote to myself, and never took it seriously or saw it as a career path. It wasn't until I went back to college, for a second degree, that a professor pulled me aside and basically informed me that I would be writing the narrative for a short-form documentary he was producing.
I wrote the narrative to that documentary and one the following year as well. Both of those went on to win Telly and Regional Emmy awards. It was at this point that I started to look at writing seriously. Shortly thereafter I began work on my novel, became a theater critic in the Los Angeles area and began writing a column called Heroines of History for an online magazine. The children's books fall in there somewhere.
What was your process like in getting your first book published?
I self-published both of my children's books. The first one, because it was a gift, I wanted to get it out in time for Christmas and I figured that I might sell 5-10 copies. No big deal. I was proven wrong in my assumption when Children Have Got to Be Carefully Taught got over 30 five-star reviews on Amazon and hung out at the top of several searches for a couple of months.
I self-published 10 Cheeky Monkeys because I decided that I wanted to spend my time focusing on my novel so that I can get it finished by the end of this year, as I have an agent interested in that piece. That agent found me through the author platform that I have created online. Unfortunately, children's books and adult fiction are so different that I can't use the same agent for both. That being said, since publication I have submitted Monkeys to publishers along with the text for my third children's book, in the hopes of finding representation for that one. We'll see!
Are there any stories you’ve written that are l packed away that you hope will get published someday? Anything you would like to share about them? 
I have a shoe box full of half-formed ideas, fully-fledged ideas and partial drafts of pieces. I am never at a loss for something to work on. At the forefront are three children's books - Monsters in the Night, Because I'm a Girl and Nothing Rhymes With Orange - and three novels.
The first is historical fiction and takes place during the American Civil War. My main characters are female spies for the Union, but are both married to Confederate officers. The second is part biographical, part motivational. I tell the stories of extraordinary women in our American past, and what we can learn from them. What from their lives we can take and apply to our own lives today. The third is set during WWII and is a combination of actual letters that a soldier sent home to his mother, interspersed with fiction inspired by those letters.
Who acts as the sounding board for your stories before they’re published?
For my children's books I run the text by colleagues and friends, as well as a couple of editors. I have a much more complex system for my novel though. I have a group of seven people who come over to my house every two weeks for "book club," where we read chapters from my novel out loud and then I listen and take notes as they discuss. After I do the rewrites from those sessions, I have a group of ten people that I send the chapters to. I get feedback from them individually. Once I have all of the rewrites done from those notes, it will go to a grammatical editor. Only after the changes from the editor have been made, will I send it off to the agent that is interested.
What has frustrated you the most in the process of putting together the books?
It is amazing how many little things will crop up that will delay progress. For me, that is the most frustrating. With my new book, 10 Cheeky Monkeys, I went through a traditional printer. So there would be a delay because the file type wasn't quite right. Then there would be a delay because the wrong size boards were delivered, etc. There always seemed to be one more hurdle that had to be cleared before I could reach the finish line.
What has pleasantly surprised you in the process?
What has pleasantly surprised me, is the satisfaction that I've gotten from crossing that finish line. Had you told me five years ago that I would be publishing children's books, I probably would have laughed at you. After all, what in the world do I know about publishing? Now, the answer is quite a bit. It was a nice surprise at the end of the day to be able to stand back and say, "Hey, I did that."
What are some of the promotions that you’ve done for your books that have been the most successful?
I've had the best success on Goodreads, it's a great community. I had a giveaway for 10 Cheeky Monkeys going in May that  garnered a lot of attention. And by the way, 10 Cheeky Monkeys has won the TDMonthly Choice Award.
Do you write daily? What are your writing goals?
I write in some form on a daily basis. That can be anything from a blog post, a chapter rewrite, a brand new chapter, a long letter to a friend, a poem, or just a flow of consciousness brain dump to help me figure out an issue that I'm dealing with. I tend to get a little tetchy if I go several days without writing something, so for the sake of those around me, I've made it a daily practice.
Do you think you will stay with one specific writing genre?
As far as genres go, I already write in more than one, and will probably expand that list as time goes on. I love the challenges presented when working in different genres.
What is the best writing advice you’ve been given?
The first draft won't be perfect, so stop waiting for perfection and get the words on the page.

What message would you like parents and children to take away from your books? What plans do you have for other books?
I hope that the biggest take away is that big words are for little kids too. In 10 Cheeky Monkeys I use non-traditional vocabulary for a counting book. Instead of silly monkeys, I have whimsical monkeys. Instead of naughty monkeys I have mischievous monkeys. My illustrator, A. Sutton, did a fantastic job providing context clues within the illustrations to help kids figure out the meanings. Then there is a glossary in the back with kid friendly definitions, so that kids can look up the exact definition as well.
Kids are like sponges, they soak up and learn so much. The only reason that they don't know big words, is because they aren't exposed to big words. I continue this in my, as yet unpublished, third book, Monsters in the Night. My favorite line out of that one is, "A bleak scheme of knavish treachery abounds." Like Monkeys, it will also have a glossary in the back.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. If you would like to learn more about Kat and her current and future works, here's some links to get you started.

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