CAROL GORDON EKSTER: Laya, what led you to become a writer for children?
LAYA STEINBERG: The one-word answer: children. Mine. I know, that’s two words. Probably every parent invents some idea for an amazing picture book, a story they told their kid that made them laugh to tears or potty-train without fuss or convince them that, “Of course steamed kale is better than chocolate!” I fell into the group of having a kid who would not go to sleep. So I made up stories. Didn’t write them down. Until I did. And then the real work began.
The alternate answer is that I was influenced by my preschool-teacher mom who wrote rhyming picture books when I was young. She didn’t have much success getting them published while raising five kids but finally got a book contract at the age of 88!
CGE: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a published children’s author?
LS: One of those above-mentioned stories seemed to stick around longer than the rest. It tickled my brain at all hours taunting me to revise and rethink. I had this notion that it would be a gift for my daughter and if nothing else, one day my daughter would find it in a dusty box and reminisce about the good ‘ole toddler years. To revise, I pulled out an old thesaurus—a dated tome that I bought at a yard sale for $1—and got to work searching for compelling words. The synonyms seemed to bounce around the page, with rhythm and rhyme and I thought: “This is the book I should be writing.” Thesaurus Rex was born.
That first story will never see the light of day—what a treacly disaster. I did a bit of market research, chose thirty target publishers, and sent Thesaurus Rex to the top four. I had no idea how lucky I was to hear back within weeks from publisher #2 with a contract offer.
A year later I had sold my second book, All Around Me I See. It was a bit of a backwards entry into the field because then I started going to SCBWI conferences and workshops, joined two critique groups (best thing I ever did!), read books on craft and committed myself to writing regularly.
CGE: By the way, I just loved using your Thesaurus Rex book when I covered synonyms with my fourth graders. And you have a new book coming out about the Jewish holiday Sukkot celebrated in October. Can you tell us the story behind the story?
LS: Thanks, Carol! I’m so glad to know it was used in older classrooms as a teaching tool rather than just at story time for the young’uns. The new book is called The Best Sukkot Pumpkin Ever and while it has the word Sukkot in the title, it’s less about the harvest holiday and more about food justice, focusing on growing food to feed the hungry. These notions are very much a part of Jewish tradition and culture. Called Tikkun Olam, the concept is defined by acts of kindness performed to improve or ‘repair of the world’—how can we make things better for everyone? To start with everyone needs food. That’s the big picture idea.
From a story standpoint, it’s about Micah, who goes to a farm with his family to help harvest pumpkins for a soup kitchen. He faces a choice about giving up his best Sukkot pumpkin to feed others. This story was based on a similar event that I organized years ago for my synagogue at a local organic farm. Now our congregation has our own garden that we grow exclusively for donation.
CGE: Can you tell us about some of the lows and highs of your career?
LS: Rejection is certainly a big frustration, but once I understood it wasn’t personal and that tastes, timing, and market trends influence what gets bought, I was better able to cope. Plus, I decided early on that if I got a rejection I would send out another submission to the next house on the list that day, so that the manuscript was always out. Okay, rejection still sucks but I am a chronically hopeful person. And writing chose me so I have no choice but to persevere. It’s also been a bit of a desert between books two and three—twelve dry, sandy years. While I waited I honed my craft, expanded my writing community, and began writing novels. The two biggest “highs” were when All Around Me I See was reprinted in Tibetan and distributed by a Chinese press to children in tiny Tibetan towns and villages following the enormous earthquake in 2015.
Imagining children with little else but the clothes on their backs, holding my book and learning to read gave me chills. The other thrill continues to be visiting classrooms and sharing my books with my readers.
CGE: What advice do you have for new writers trying to get into the children’s publishing market?
LS: It’s a journey, for sure. If you need instant gratification this may be the wrong profession for you. But I’m guessing, like me, you love writing and you love children and you are determined to make it happen. Build resiliency and be kind to yourself. And for heaven’s sake, get thee to a critiquery! Critique groups have made me the writer I am, I cannot stress that enough. The kidlit community also happens to be the most kind, generous group of people (waves at Carol from my computer ~~~) you will ever meet, and that alone gives one the support to put up with the industry frustrations. Plus, look at this world—it’s a mess! We authors have to save the planet one book at a time. Get writing!
CGE: What does the future hold for Laya Steinberg?
LS: In the near future: book release parties that involve seeds and pumpkins and other goodies (yay parties!) and school visits (hurray for going back to school with no homework!) and long-term: more picture books in print, I hope, and maybe a debut middle grade novel. And chocolate. Always chocolate.
Kar-ben is generously offering a copy of THE BEST SUKKOT PUMPKIN EVER. Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway for a chance to win. US addresses only.
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