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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The ABC's of Picture Books: Author Interview with Maria Kernahan

You are the author of a unique series of alphabet books for cities and states. What made you choose this theme? What makes you chose a certain city or a state?
I was living in Aspen, Colorado and one day, after dropping my daughter at dance class, I was so awestruck at the incredible beauty of the place, I decided I needed to write an ABC book about Aspen. When we moved back to Chicago, it made sense to write about my hometown. After that, we just branched off across the country, writing about places that we love.

How hard is it to find words that begin with X or Z? 

Luckily, in Aspen we had the X Games, and the local license plates began with the letters ZG! Since then, we look for Xs in the architecture of the city - it’s pretty easy to find. Oddly enough, J and K are super tough. As is U!

Who helped you polish your story?
I was a copywriter with a journalism degree, and have written fiction and screenplays. I’ve been in writing groups for my fiction work, but the children’s books we did on our own.

I’ve seen several publishers whose guidelines say, “no rhyming books or alphabet books.” Did you try the traditional route of seeking a publisher and/or agent to market your book?
I actually was working with an agent in NYC on a non-fiction project. I brought her the idea of “A is for Aspen” and she laughed and said that unless my name was Beyonce or Madonna, she couldn’t sell a picture book from an unknown.

Tell me about the process. How did you find the right illustrator?

My incredible brother-in-law, Michael Schafbuch, is a hugely talented artist, and paints gorgeous canvas in Seattle. I had an idea of what I wanted the book to look like, and asked if he could do it. He said “let’s give it a go” and off we went. We work together on the concepts for the illustrations - sometimes he just creates something that I had never even thought about.

How did you go about choosing your marketing plan?
We didn’t really have a marketing plan. Aspen was a small enough town that I was able to walk around with my book, and people really responded to it. I feel like I’ve gotten a master’s degree in publishing in the past few years, learning about formatting, printing and shipping books. We also have a line of related merchandise, like note cards and coasters that have sold really well.

What are some of the promotions that you’ve done for the book that have been the most successful?
We have done GoodReads giveaways which gave us some lovely exposure. Both Michael and I have done author signings in independent bookstores, which gets a great response. I think authors need to try anything to get their message out - start local and go from there.

What has frustrated or surprised you the most in putting your books together? 
The logistics have been frustrating. When we first started, I had 1,000 books in my garage and hand-delivered them to customers. As we grew, we were plagued with shipping and invoicing our customers. Finally, we found a distributor who warehouses and fills orders. It’s been heaven

What advice would you give someone who wants to publish their own books?
Start small. We started in a micro-market, and grew from there.

What is the writing best advice you’ve been given?
Get your butt in the chair.

What message would you like parents and children to take away from this book?
We write about places we love, and we’ve found that adults seem to love our books as much, if not more, than kids. I had someone send the book to their brother in China who missed home. People are buying the books for their future grandchildren. And it’s so fun to hear which pages the kids respond to. I just got a note from someone who said that both their kids loved the “Yada Yada” page of the New York book the best!

What other books are in the process?
We will be releasing “S is for San Francisco” and “W is for Washington DC” in 2017. Maybe we’ll jump across the pond next!

Any other thoughts on writing you’d like to add?

Writing is great, but it is work. A lot of people think they need a beautiful setting, the right inspiration and a weekend alone to write. Good writing happens when you sit down and get to it. Even 10 minutes at a time.

That's it for today's interview. If you'd like to learn more about Maria's state and city books, here is how to get started.
Our website:
Our distributor’s website is
Check out our Etsy page for our great items that feature illustrations from our books:

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