Karen Yin is in my picture book marketing group for 2022. But her debut picture book, Whole Whale, with Barefoot Books, illustrated by Nelleke Verhoeff, came out this May. It’s a simple story of animals making space for each other, with a larger theme of fitting in. There’s counting and rhyme and wonderful illustrations.
Carol Gordon Ekster: Karen, can you tell us the story behind this story?
Karen Yin: I woke up one morning with the words “whole whale” swimming through my head, and I was extremely taken with the wordplay. At the time, I had one picture book manuscript under my belt—a hilarious meta story about unicorns, (someone please buy it!) and my brain was on the lookout for new ideas. So when “whole whale” lodged in my noggin, I knew there was a story in there about the largest mammal in the history of our planet desperate to squeeze into someplace small. Like a picture book.
What was your journey to becoming a published author?
Getting an agent and getting a book offer happened in parallel.
#DVpit, a Twitter pitch party for marginalized and underrepresented creators, was instrumental in helping me showcase Whole Whale. I received a like from a Barefoot Books editor during the October 2019 #DVpit and submitted my manuscript. In November 2019, I queried a dream agency that was closed to submissions by using a special link provided to some attendees at the August 2019 SCBWI L.A. conference. Within hours, Red Fox Literary requested more manuscripts, and I signed with Jennie Kendrick in January 2020. In April 2020, about five months after my submission, Barefoot Books made an offer! And because I had an agent by then, she was able to handle the negotiations for me. From offer to publication, it was just over a year.
I understand that the timing was unusually fast for the publishing industry. It’s been an incredible experience, and I don’t take any part of it for granted.
Can you tell us a little about your writing schedule and process?
I think of myself as a disciplined writer, but more in terms of output than schedule. My life is deadline-driven, so I just obey my calendar and get it done, whenever, however. I’m not opposed to staying up late or rising early or using insomnia to complete a task. In fact, I welcome the serenity of odd hours.
I do have a morning ritual, though. Before I leave the bed, I let my mind wander through works in progress. There’s something about the half-awake state that heightens my ability to solve problems. This is the most orderly part of my day.
Have there been any unexpected or surprising aspects of having your first book published?
For the dedication, I asked my editor if I could use a couple of Chinese characters so my mom could read it. I hand-delivered an author copy to my mom, and when she saw “Mama” in Chinese, she was really touched. Then we took turns reading Whole Whale out loud. It was the first time she ever read one of my stories, so it was my turn to be moved. My mom loved the book, of course.
How are you dealing with the marketing side of becoming an author?
I like marketing. It’s a game. Before I promoted Whole Whale, I studied other marketing efforts by the kidlit community on Twitter. I noticed which tweets sparked curiosity and which ones I glossed over. I made several post templates and two main lists—one with required elements, like the publisher, and the other with optional elements, like hashtags. In every Whole Whale tweet, I try to expressly say I’m the author to provide context for the tweet. I also try to include a bit on the theme or story; otherwise, all you see is the title or cover, and so what. I try to balance the static text with active text—tags, hashtags, links—because having too many linked terms makes the tweet unreadable. And I try not to make the graphic too slick, which might work against me. So, yeah, marketing is fun.
What advice would you give new writers that helped you break into children’s publishing?
I wouldn’t be here without my critique partners, The Book Bugs. We were students in the same 2019 Children’s Book Academy picture book writing course. My advice is to find your community, whether it’s The Children’s Book Academy, Storyteller Academy, 12 x 12, or KidLit411. Make an effort to form a critique group. This is your core kidlit family. Nurture and sustain one another on this long and hopefully fruitful journey.
What does the future hold for Karen Yin?
My second book is coming out in fall 2022 from Page Street Kids! So Not Ghoul is about a little Chinese American ghost in bicultural limbo. This own-voices picture book is close to my heart, because it features Chinese ghosts and Mandarin puns. Stay tuned!
You can connect with Karen here:
You can connect with Nelleke Verhoeff, the illustrator, here: