CAROL GORDON EKSTER: I met Christy at Jane Yolen’s picture book boot camp at the Highlights Foundation in 2018, where she was one of those special #kidlit folk you don’t easily forget. She’s talented, bright, warm and caring. When I read her newest picture book, Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means, I was amazed at how she was able to so perfectly rhyme such important concepts. This will become a treasured book in elementary classrooms.
Christy, can you tell us how you went from being a lawyer to writing for children and give us some details about your journey to publication and finding an agent?
CHRISTY MIHALY: Thanks for inviting me here, Carol! It’s funny, I don’t think of myself as a lawyer at this point, but it took many years for me to consider myself fully “a writer.”
I practiced law for more than 20 years. Most of that time, I loved it. I was a partner in an environmental law firm in San Francisco that represented environmental and community groups and local governments working to preserve natural resources and protect the environment and people. But my husband and I decided that the time was right for a Big Change for our family, and after a few years of deliberations and explorations, we moved to Vermont. I joined the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, doing important work to protect public health. Then in 2011, after seven years of teaching in Vermont, my husband was up for a sabbatical.
So … our family moved for a school year to Seville, Spain. My daughter attended a local Spanish school, my husband taught at the University, and I took the opportunity to try out writing full-time. Ten years earlier, I’d taken a children’s writing course (Institute of Children’s Literature), which in those Stone Age days was done by mailing paper assignments and handwritten comments back and forth through the mail. I hadn’t pursued writing after that. This was my chance! I left my law job and spent that year in Spain creating a writing career.
I focused on magazines. I took old assignments I’d written for the ICL course and revised and submitted them. I didn’t have access to an English language library, so I went online to research magazine markets (including online and unpaid ones) and make submissions.
The cool thing was that living in such unfamiliar surroundings shook loose a lot of fresh writing ideas. That year, I published my first piece, a story about a girl who moved to Spain. It was published in an online magazine, an unpaid market. But, a credit! My next piece was an article for one of the Cricket magazines. It was about the Spanish sailors who sailed with Columbus – a topic all the kids in Spain knew about, though I hadn’t.
When we returned to Vermont in 2012, I resolved to keep this incipient writing career going. I published an essay in a local parenting newspaper, and continued pitching article ideas. I started attending conferences and workshops, and became more active in SCBWI. I learned to write picture books and also started publishing longer nonfiction in the school and library market, which I still enjoy. And, the most important thing: I joined a critique group. Our online crit group has been together five years now, and during that time we have all improved our writing and published books.
In the summer of 2014, I wrote the manuscript for Hey, Hey, Hay!, which turned out to be my first published trade picture book.
I sold it in the summer of 2015. About a year after that, after many rejections, I submitted my work to the lovely Erzsi Deak of Hen & Ink Literary Studio. She agreed to represent me, and very quickly negotiated a deal for a YA nonfiction I co-wrote with Sue Heavenrich, Diet for a Changing Planet: Food for Thought (Lerner, 2018).
And—we recently sold the story that she loved enough to sign me, back in 2015 (though it hasn’t been announced yet!).
CGE: Can you tell us the story behind the story of how you came to write Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means?
CM: About four years ago, I started hearing people saying things that showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution. People who should have known better called for flag-burners to lose their American citizenship – which would be unconstitutional. Sheesh. I wanted kids to appreciate the basic principles of our governmental system, which some adults seemed to have forgotten (or never learned).
I talked with Erzsi about this, and we joked that I should create a board book about the Constitution for certain government officials. Then I thought, maybe a picture book introducing the First Amendment! Not an obvious picture book topic, right? But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone.
I experimented with poems about the First Amendment. Poetry uses a few well-chosen words to express complex concepts, so I thought poems might help me get to the First Amendment’s basic essence. There are five freedoms named in this amendment—maybe a poem about each? (The five are: freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, and the rights to assembly and to petition the government for redress of grievances.) I wrote five poems, but that wasn’t a book. I wanted to explain the historical background of the First Amendment, and how kids could use these rights. So I added historical vignettes and a contemporary story to create more kid-friendly elements and bring it all together. Of course, each of these steps involved re-thinkings, re-visionings, and edits, all the way through discussions about how best to illustrate it – and, by the way, I’m really pleased with the way Manu Montoya‘s art complements the text.
CGE: Your published books are nonfiction. What draws you to this genre and have you written any fiction picture books?
CM: I’m attracted to nonfiction because I really enjoy telling true stories to kids. I love sharing information that I find fascinating. (The challenge is figuring out how to tell it so that it will be fascinating to kids!)
And, thanks for asking about fiction! I do have a fiction picture book on its way. The talented Sheryl Murray is illustrating and I am really excited to see what she will do with it. Here’s the blurb from Dial Books: “The picture book is a dog’s-eye-view of how patience is a virtue, especially when a new baby comes home.” And … it should be published in 2022. (The life of a picture book author involves endless waiting.)
CGE: What is your favorite part of being a children’s author? What is your least favorite part?
CM: My favorite part, to my surprise, has been school visits.
I used to believe nothing could top sitting alone doing research and writing. But I’ve learned that visiting schools and talking to kids about books makes this book creation work we do even more meaningful. And I love seeing kids read (or listen to) my books.
My least favorite part: waiting. Waiting comes in many versions. … When I have submitted a manuscript: waiting to hear back. If a picture book manuscript sells: waiting for an illustrator. If good news arrives: waiting for an announcement. Once a book is completed: waiting for book reviews, waiting for publication, waiting for sales numbers. (And maybe even waiting for a check!) Sigh. I’m working on patience.
CGE: Christy, I agree with you on the whole waiting aspect of being an author. I don’t know any #kidlit book creator who likes the waiting involved! But we must focus on being patient and of course, the writing… which brings me to the question of what your writing schedule looks like.
CM: Do not use me as a model for this. I am a full-time writer – it’s the work I do, and how I make a living. But in practice, that doesn’t mean writing all day every day. It means I write when I can write, and I don’t write when I can’t …
When I have a contract (or other) deadline, I get up early, start writing before breakfast (after coffee), write all day, have some food and exercise, keep writing, and go to bed. (I know, what could be more fun?) When I don’t have a deadline, I catch up on the business of life, and administrative writing tasks, and I procrastinate. I also tend to spend time being anxious about whatever I should be writing next.
I recently spent two weeks taking care of three young grandkids, and couldn’t find a moment during that period to think, much less write … but I did soak up a great deal of kid-energy and inspiration, so I’m letting that percolate at the moment.
CGE: I know you work at improving your craft. Can you tell us what you do and what you find most effective?
CM: I love going to writing workshops, to learn from other writers and practice new techniques, and be reminded about better ways to do this work.
I’ve also been writing poetry, which helps me get the words flowing. Poems can help us appreciate and develop beautiful language and lyrical prose.
CGE: What does the future hold for Christy Mihaly?
CM: I’m excited to get Free for You and Me into the world, especially into classrooms. I’m looking forward to school visits, including one with An Open Book Foundation in Washington, D.C., which brings authors to schools that might not otherwise be able to have author visits.
I’m also starting a collaboration with an awesome 4th-grade class in Kentucky. Yealey Elementary School and I have been interacting remotely on book projects for a couple of years, and now I’ve invited a class of 4th-graders to help me develop my next nonfiction civics-related picture book. So we’ll see where that takes us.
I have, in addition, a middle-grade nonfiction proposal that isn’t quite singing yet. I need to incorporate feedback from my crit group and my agent, and also continue with the research.
Finally, I have a long list of ideas for picture books, just waiting for me to sit down and pay attention to them!
Thanks so much, Carol, for the thoughtful questions.
CGE: Thank YOU, Christy!
FREE FOR YOU AND ME: What Our First Amendment Means
By Christy Mihaly, Illustrated by Manu Montoya
Albert Whitman & Company (March 1, 2020)
You can connect with Christy here: