Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Interview with Giuseppe Castellano: Art Director Penguin Young Readers Group

I met Giuseppe at the SCBWI North and East Bay Conference. We struck up a conversation at dinner about illustrators and writers, and I learned so much that I asked him for an interview. He graciously agreed. And, not only did he do that, he answered my questions with much detail. 

With all that he had going on; work, the perfect storm, and trying to get things done at home, since the office was shut down...and with twins running around. I'm surprised he got to my interview, let alone answered so greatly. 

Thank you Giuseppe! You rock!!

Below are the questions I asked him: 

1.     What's the best thing about your job? The worst?

   •    There are so many great aspects of my job. Too numerous to write. I will say that above all else, the best thing about my job is that through making books we help children learn—and then love—to read. An unfortunate aspect of my job is the disappointment that comes when a project you believed in isn't as successful as you had hoped.

2.     Why did you choose to be an art director?

   •    I wasn't planning on it early on. I was an illustration major at RISD (BFA Illus., '99). To help support that goal, I started looking at design assistant positions. One thing led to another and I was hired as a design assistant at Simon & Schuster in May of 1999. Fast forward thirteen years and here we are. 

3.     What time do you get up, and what do you eat for breakfast?

   •    When one of my children starts chanting "MAMA! BABBO! (daddy in Italian)". My breakfast consists of whatever my children don't eat. Recently, it's been toast with peanut butter or cream cheese, cheerios, and fruit.

4.     You are an award-winning illustrator. What's your favorite medium? And, do you still get enough time to draw and paint for yourself?

   •    My medium of choice depends on the situation. If I'm doodling, it's with a pen. I love the permanency of it. I can't erase what I do so it forces me to stay alert and be sure of my decisions. Happily, for my "Mister Doodle" series that won in the New York Book Show I was able to use my favorite collection of pens and gray markers. 

    •    If/when I have the time, my true love is oil painting. Having three children under the age of five, it's impossible for me to pull out the easel, zinc white, cadmium red, and other lovely and toxic colors to paint with. I will one day—when I'm not worried that my children would drink the linseed oil.

5.     Complete this sentence: If I see one more submitted (blank) drawing, I will jump off the nearest bridge.

   •    Well, it's unfair to go that far. The artists don't know that I'm receiving 10-15 postcards a day with (blank) on them. What is disappointing is when the postcard or email doesn't put the artist's best foot forward. 

They should remember that postcards should be as big as possible with their most compelling image on the front—and that's it. All the information can be relegated to the back of the card. Too often, an illustrator will use up very valuable postcard space on the front showing their info in 19 point type, while the art itself is tiny. 

In emails, remember to keep it short, provide a link, and be professional.

6.     Where's the best place to get a cup of Joe or tea in your hometown?

   •    My hometown is Baltimore, Maryland. When I have coffee there, it's at my mom's. And it's some really good espresso. In New York, it has to be the street vendor coffee. It's cheap, good, and quick. After two visits they typically know what you want and start talking to you about the weather and families.

7.     What do you think about the publishing world today? Is it easier or harder to find great new talent now that everyone is self-publishing?

   •    I think it's an exciting time. There is some incredible work being done both in terms of writing and art. And, children’s books are selling beautifully across the board. More kids are reading. It's hard not to be excited about that. The positive sales direction certainly has a lot to do with the continuing growth of e-books. As I'm seeing it, there's a place in the market for traditional and digital publishing and I'm proud to be part of a company, Penguin, that embraces both.

8.     What changes has Penguin done that will help make your clients more competitive in this ever-changing publishing world?

   •    Penguin possesses the world's most prestigious list of bestselling, award-winning authors. It is home to Eric Carle, Tomie dePaola, Beatrix Potter, Jan Brett, and so many more. It's my view that we excel at identifying and growing the best talent. That is what keeps Penguin at the top of the industry.

9.     What is your number one role?

   •    I think it's the role of a director in any field to provide two things: support and information. As it relates to me, that manifests in myriad ways: working with the publisher and editors to establish a visual identity to a list; helping designers with schedules and artist searches; reviewing mechanicals and proofs; establishing and maintaining our budget; etc.

10. What's the most interesting part about designing a book cover? The most difficult?

   •    Many contributing factors go into designing a successful book cover. It's much more than just finding art and putting a title on it. I'd say an interesting part is seeing all of these factors come together to form a strong package. Conversely, it can be the most difficult part. 

11. What words of advice do you have for a newbie illustrator and/or writer?

   •    It's important to push yourself to evolve and grow. Early on in your career, there will probably be some misses (I don't like the word rejection—it has a finite implication). However, it's vital to stay with it and to focus on what you can control: set up a website; give yourself assignments for you portfolio; network through social media, SCBWI, etc. It is a trade. And like any trade, you need to work on it constantly. I think doing all of this gives you a higher chance of success.

12. Why do you attend SCBWI events?

   •    It's an opportunity to meet the great people in our industry and to talk about children's books. What's better than that? I attend SCBWI events as often as I can (which isn't often, but I'm potentially doing three next year). I did an Oakland conference this Fall which was a complete joy. I was given the opportunity to speak at length about my art department and the relationship between us and the illustrator. It's also an opportunity to help in any way I can which I am grateful for.

13. What other associations do you belong or attend? Why?

   •    I work with CBIG (Children's Book Illustrators Group) doing portfolio reviews and talks. I'm a frequent visitor of my alma mater, RISD, speaking to the young illustrators there. All of these things are done in an attempt to meet new people in the industry and to maintain a relationship with the publishing community.

14. Who is your biggest cheerleader?

   •    My wife, no question. If a cheerleader is an enthusiastic supporter, she is all of that and more.

15. What one word best describes you?

   •    I say "tired." My wife says, "thoughtful". Let's go with that.

16. Who are you reading right now?

   •    W. Somerset Maugham's "Moon and Sixpence". It's my favorite book and I try to read it once a year for my birthday in May. I'm a little late this year. It's a story of man who leaves a seemingly good life to pursue his desire to become an artist. It's said to be loosely based on Gauguin's life. We're also reading Puffin's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" to my son.

17. What one thing would you tell a newbie illustrator NOT to do when submitting work?

   •    Here is something I would tell them TO do: Tailor your submission to what the imprints have done and are doing. Let them see that your style is in line with the type 
of books that the imprint produces.

18. What's the funniest thing your kids have asked you about your job?

   •    My job has a lot to do with art. My son has been saying lately, "I want to be a Space Explorer Artist. I fly around and draw planets. If I run into trouble, I'll have to stop drawing and pull out my sword."

19. When searching for that new talent, what 5 things do you look for? What's the whole package in your opinion?

   •    I don't have a checklist. When I look for artists it's usually for a specific project. In that case, I ask myself, "What feeling are we trying to convey, and which artist would help convey it?" We look for artists who will also bring more to the table than their ability to draw. They need to be able to work on a deadline; communicate their thoughts and ideas; and above all: problem solve.

 20. How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success?

   •    I think your blog readers should focus on honing their craft. And hopefully one day we'll be able to work together on some exciting projects.

21. Do you get a sense that "this new idea" is going to be big? Or, is it hard to predict the works that will take off, and become the next big thing?

   •    We plan for all of our books to be successful. A great deal of thought and planning goes into that. However, there are times when the writing, editing, art direction, and illustration all come together so beautifully, you get a sense that it could be bigger than what you had earlier envisioned.

22. Who would you like to work with? Writer? Illustrator? Why?

   •    Do you have a time machine? Beatrix Potter. I just saw the Beatrix Potter exhibit at the Morgan Library here in New York, and it was inspiring. If your readers have a chance to see it, they should.

23. Any big news?

 •    My three kids are starting to sing in Italian. Nothing cuter than that.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Working on Picture Books

I have a few picture books that I have been working on behind closed doors. Meaning, I have not showed too many people. In some cases, no one has read them but me. I don't know why, but I feel like my picture books aren't as strong as my middle grades. But, today, I am going to show the starts of three of my picture books in the hopes that I get over my fear to present them to readers, and then to publishers and agents.

In fact, I'd love to read some of them at Big Sur, which is coming up so fast. This is my way of getting myself ready. Psyching myself up!

The hardest part for me when writing picture books is to cut out those words that the illustrator will create, without losing the main plot of the story, or making it too confusing to read without the pictures, or adding a bunch of author notes so someone can understand it without pictures. UGH!

Below are the 3 picture books I'd like to work on: If you'd like to help, please note at the bottom in the comments section, which one has the best start. 

779 words

My name is Mira, and this is my MeMaw's yesteryear wall. When you get your picture up on the yesteryear wall, you know you belong to our family.

The yesteryear is in a special part of MeMaw's house. It is in between the front door and the kitchen. Where everyone can see it. Aunts, and Uncles, Moms, and Dads, Sisters, and Brothers and all the Cousins pass by it. They see our smiling faces every time they visit. They can even reminisce. Reminisce means to think back on it.

My favorite one to look on is the one of my big brother when he was younger than me. He is naked and his bum shows. MeMaw says, "For goodness sakes, both ends are smiling at us." I laugh when she says that. Brother does not.

But, once you're up on the yesteryear wall, you don't ever come down, even if later, you don't appreciate the picture so much. "It's part of your history," PawPaw says. "Ain't no shame in that." I agree with him, even though I secretly hope I never get a funny looking picture up there.

Polle. Polle.  365 words

"Jumbo!" Porters greeted.
Trailhead, 6,400 feet.
Tents packed.
Backpacks loaded.
Ascent started.
Eat. Drink. Climb.

"Polle. Polle," repeated the porters.
 Up Mt. Kilimanjaro we hiked and hopped.
 Rongai route zigged and zagged.
 Jungle gave way to shrubs.
 Climate changed from hot to warm. 

      Oscar: 320 words

Everyone always said, "No kicking!" But everything Oscar saw, Oscar kicked.

Oscar and little brother built a block castle. Oscar set the last wedge in place, and kicked.  CLACK! CLINK! CLANK! Pieces toppled.

Little brother cried.    

"Oops," Oscar said. 
Mom scolded. "No kicking!"

Oscar darted into the kitchen for snacks. His cat’s toy sat on the mat. Oscar kicked. CLINK! It hit the milk bowl. SPLISH! SPLUSH! SPLOOSH! Milk splashed.

The cat sprang.

"Oops," Oscar said.

Dad frowned. "No kicking!"


  • It feels good to have looked these over again, and to have printed some of them here
  • From taking time away from them, I have a fresh perspective
  • Remember - you can't be a writer if you don't submit your work

Revising Tips for Picture Books:
  • Is the idea a real story?
  • Is the age group targeted spot on?
  • Did the Main Character learn? Change?
  • Is it under 1000 words?
  • Is the language up to date but not too trendy?
  • Is the character interesting?
  • What's the pacing like? 
  • Engaging verbs?
  • Is there enough room for front matter and/or back matter?
  • Where are my page turners?
  • Will adults find humor in it too?
  • Was I thinking about layout?
  • Did I give the illustrator places to have fun with pictures?

I will be revising right up until Nov. 29th - when I drive down to Big Sur. Any help is much appreciated. I am very thankful for all of you readers. As always, keep writing and revising your own work.

Good Luck!

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Interview with Sue Fliess: Author of Tons of Trucks

I met Sue at a SCBWI conference, and through Facebook. We share a love of children's books, and a love for writing them. I reached out to her for an interview and she accepted. 

Sue is a children's book author and senior copywriter for eBay. She is a freelance writer as well. Her motto is: Don't give up! She is full of helpful information that may just be the ticket to help you on your way to publication.

Below are the questions I asked her:

1.     Describe your writing in 5 words:

Bouncy, fun, rhyming, sweet, humorous.

2.     What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast? 

Let’s be clear that this is not a decision I get to make each day! I am woken up by my 8 and 9 year old boys around 6:15 a.m., but pretend not to hear them until about 6:45, when I finally succumb to their calls for breakfast. (but often hubby will get up and feed them and buy me 15 more precious minutes). 

Breakfast is usually coffee and either a bagel or cereal or eggs, or eggs on a bagel. ☺

3.     Do you have an agent? If so, why? 

I do have an agent, but that wasn’t always the case. When I had about 6-8 solid picture book manuscripts under my belt and a YA that was in first draft form, I realized that submitting those manuscripts to editors, writing new stories, and keeping tabs on the market was too overwhelming to do on my own. I started querying agents at that point. 

However, I sold my first 3 books without an agent. I signed with an agent just in time to have her negotiate the 2nd and 3rd book contracts. Whew!

4.     What's the best thing about belonging to SCBWI? 

Do I have to choose only one? Sorry, I can’t. Here’s my list: the people, the networking, the support from people trying to do just what I’m doing, experiencing the same struggles, and the feeling of belonging to a community that is out there trying to do a wonderful thing—expand children’s imaginations. 

5.     Do you belong to any other associations for writers? If so, which ones and why? 

I belong to the Author’s Guild, but the main reason I joined was because I was unagented when I sold my first book and they offer a contract consulting service. Which is contract review and advice.

Soon after I joined, I saw other benefits, like website templates and hosting, which I use. It’s also great to have an organization looking out for my best interests on the whole. 

6.     Have you thought about illustrating your own books? What has kept you from doing so?

I HAVE thought about it, but don’t tell anyone! Haha. 

I was actually an art major in college, with a focus on illustration, if you can believe it. I changed my major halfway through to marketing communications, and kept art as a minor. While I do think I have some art skills, I’m a much better writer than I am an artist. 

And have you seen the art in children’s books these days? I think I’d have to go back to art school to compete. That said, I aspire to one day brush up my skills and at least give it a try. 

7.     What one word best describes you? 


8.     What's the hardest thing for you to overcome when writing a new manuscript? 

Figuring out (and then writing) a satisfying ending. 

9.     Did you ever want to give up being a writer? If so, what kept you going? 

I have never wanted to give up being a writer, but at times, the thought of giving up trying to get published crossed my mind. But then I thought of all the work I put in, and all of the fun stories that would never have a chance if I didn’t try every possible way to make it happen. 

It was definitely an inner motivation, but I would stop and ask myself, ‘If I give up, what will I do?” Probably keep writing. I have wanted to give up on specific projects many times! What I’ve found, though, is that I rarely throw in the towel on any one project, but instead park it for a while and pick it up later. 

10. What are the top 5 things you've learned while trying to get published? 

Never think you are better than anyone else. 
Be open to trying new things
Listen to your critique group
Apply for SCBWI grants-you’ve nothing to lose
Don’t take your spouse’s feedback personally (in fact, I recommend not sharing your work with them unless you have to)
SCBWI is a lifeline. Join it or perish!
That’s 6. Oh well!

11. What's the funniest thing a kid has asked you about your books? 

“Why did you write it in rhyme? Rhyme gets old.” LOVE IT!

12. How do you promote your books? Twitter? Facebook? School visits? And which one helps you the most? 

I do all of the above, plus: bookstore events, SCBWI listservs, attending conferences, speaking at conferences (if I’m invited), selling books at conferences, donating to schools’ auctions, hosting or participating in giveaways. 

It is hard to say what is the best return on investment, because awareness is so hard to measure. So when I do these various things, I just try to be selective and make what I’m doing count for all it can. And then I pray that people actually like the books once they buy them. Praying never hurts. ☺

13. How do you get invited to a school visit? Do you make cold calls? Do you email principals? Do they call you? 

Funny you should ask, because up to this point, I’ve not had a ton of time to devote to school visits (I work almost full time writing for eBay), so the invites have come from word of mouth, friends at different schools, my own kids’ schools (elementary and preschool), etc. I’m hoping to do more outreach to schools in the area in the new year to build up this part of my writing career. 

14. Who did your trailer for Tons of Trucks? Do you see trailers for books as the next big marketing tool? 

My illustrator and her husband made the trailer for Tons of Trucks. She is amazingly creative and talented, and her husband is an animation specialist, so lucky me! The trailer is darling! I created the trailers for Shoes for Me! and A Dress for Me! on iMovie. I think they turned out pretty cute for someone who was learning as I went.

15. Who are you reading right now? 

I am reading 2 books. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, and I just cracked open Katherine Hannigan’s Ida B.

16. What do you think about the publishing world today? Is it easier or harder for writers to find an agent or publisher? 

I don’t think it’s gotten any easier to get published, but I do think writers have more options these days. Self-publishing has become much more acceptable, because good writers are not afraid to say, ‘I’m good, and my story should be a book, so I will make it a book on my own.’ I’ve seen many authors have success this way. 

Maybe I’m wrong about this next statement, but I feel like there are so many more agents out there now, than even 3 years ago. I think layoffs in publishing have pushed very skilled people to use those skills elsewhere, and they’ve become agents, or freelance editors, and the like. 

17. Agents caution writers about rhyming books. How did you get past this anti-rhyming view? 

I tricked her! Just kidding. I think that there are two kinds of rhyme. Good rhyme and bad rhyme. Agents and editors see a lot of the bad, so they try to minimize this by warning against it. But if you are good at it, go for it. Good rhyme is like bubbles in champagne---it rises to the top. 

18. Have you ever gotten to meet the illustrators of your books? And, how does that working relationship work?

I’ve only met them virtually. My illustrators live in Michigan, Ohio, and Massachusetts. I’ll soon add the UK to that list. 

So far I feel I’ve been very lucky in that the illustrators want the books to succeed as much as I do, so it’s been harmonious and fun to take the journey together. 

19. What are you working on now? 

I’m working on 2 picture books and a middle grade novel. It’s the middle grade I’ve been working on for 2+ years. But I still love it, and my goal for 2013 is to finish it. Seriously. My kids keep asking to read it. It’s embarrassing.

20. How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success?

Nothing helps more than a word of mouth recommendation. Go to your local library and see if they have my books (they may not carry Trucks because it’s a lift-the-flap book and libraries shy away from those usually). 

If they don’t have my books, they’ll often order a copy for the library. Then many families can share the book and more little readers get the chance to become Sue Fliess fans. Yeah!

21. Any big news?

Yes! A story I finished recently about adopting an older dog from a shelter, just got picked up by my editor at Little Golden Books! Yippee! 

It’s called We’re Getting a Pet and it will pub in spring 2015. That’s not a typo. Stay with me people!

And I have two books coming out in Fall of 2013. Robots, Robots Everywhere!,
illustrated by Bob Staake, will pub in August 2013 with Little Golden Books, and A Gluten-free Birthday for Me!, illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris, will pub in fall 2013 with Albert Whitman & Co.