I met Aaron on Facebook. Immediately I got a sense that this guy was funny. I don't know why? Do you?
I reached out for an interview and he agreed. Thank you, Aaron! You rock. This interview is amazing. I think everyone will be shaking their head like I did while reading your answers, laughing out loud at others, and smiling through the rest. Thanks again!
Below are the questions I asked him:
Why is your passion children’s books?
I hated books as a kid. Never read 'em. Until fifth grade.
In fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Hunter, who did something nobody, not even my parents, had done. He READ BOOKS OUT LOUD TO US. Sounds crazy, but it changed everything. I had no idea what I had been missing. I fell in love with kids books. Loved them even through my teen years, even through my adult years. But I didn't know that being an author was a real job, otherwise I might have started there. So I explored many other areas of creativity before landing in kids books. But that love and passion for kids books (and, let's face it, a penchant for being really juvenile) was always part of me since fifth grade.
If it hadn't been for Mr. Hunter, I don't think I ever would have developed a passion for kids books and I don't think I would have become an author. It was one of those fateful encounters that changes your stars and you don't know it until 20 years later.
You had many different jobs in your twenty’s. How have they influenced your writing? How did you get from theatre to culinary to writing for kids?
It sounds like I've had a lot of different jobs, but really, I feel like I've had a wonderful evolution of a single career. The career of “creating”.
Sure, I've done jobs to pay the bills (waiter, bartender, office manager), but I started out as an actor. That was my training in college and that was my career ambition. Theatre was very creative, but hard to make a living at, so I decided I would explore my creativity in another passion area...food. I went to culinary school.
During that time, a theatre opportunity opened up, this time in writing for theatre. At first, I was like “no, I've closed that door in my life...I'm a chef now, not a theatre guy.” I was worried people (and my parents) would think I couldn't stick with something. But I got over that. I realized that this was a really cool opportunity to create in a whole new way. So I left cooking and began writing for theatre. Plays. Musicals. Stuff like that.
Along the way, I got a chance to write something for kids, and I LOVED it. It was so much more free than boring grown-up stuff. So I did more. And more. Eventually, I decided I wanted to expand the reach of my writing for kids and began to explore writing books for kids.
The big thing I learned is that you have to be open to the opportunities life brings your way. I have friends from theatre who are still working temp jobs, still waiting for that one lucky break, and have never have considered the sheer possibilities that have come their way. If I hadn't been open to the possibilities, I'd have NEVER landed in the world of creating books for kids. I wouldn't have it any other way.
What makes kids read? Humor? Serious issues? Honesty?
I think you've got to connect with a book that lights a fire in you, or connect with somebody (like Mr. Hunter) who is passionate about books and inspires it in you. I think humor, drama, authentic voice, honesty, can each be beacons for different kids, but there's no ONE thing.
That's the biggest thing I would say to teachers and parents. Fan the flames of the books that actually light fires of passion in kids, and quit worrying if it's PROPER literature or not. If it's graphic novels, great! If it's Goosebumps, fine! If it's non-fiction magazines, awesome!
But we sometimes push kids away from reading by believing that, if only they'd get hooked on REAL books, they'll develop a love of reading. But guess what? If they love reading graphic novels, they already HAVE a love of reading! Be the one who puts that next great graphic novel into their hand, instead of looking down your nose at their copy of BONE and trying to shove BUD, NOT BUDDY into their fist.
(I love BUD, NOT BUDDY by the way. Just an example...)
What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast?
I used to eat nothing for breakfast, or if I ate anything, it would be 3 eggs and a potato/toast carb-fest, but I'm trying to get healthier.
(Did I mention I love food? Yeah...in abundance.)
So these days, I get up at 6:45am, hit the gym with my wife, and have a yogurt with granola after. I know...sounds so peace/love/flowers, right?
You moved around a lot as a kid. What state was your favorite to live in and why?
My favorite place to live actually wasn't a state. It was Okinawa, a small island off the coast of mainland Japan. It was just a whole different culture. Our first house there, we lived in a stone house in a rain forest. We were a block from cliffs that overlooked the ocean. The hill behind our house was lousy with poisonous habu snakes. The mama-san store on the corner sold Felix the Cat gum and these funky ice-pop torpedos...things I'd never seen before. It was an adventure.
We lived there for 3 years, from 2nd grade to 4th grade. I've never forgotten my experiences there.
WOW! I get three???!
Plastic ability is #1. Like Plastic Man or ElastaGirl. Turning yourself into a parachute? That's just awesome.
Then flying would be #2. Every superhero who can't fly wishes they could. That's why Superman is the king of superheroes.
#3 would be....hmmm. You know, if I could have #1 and #2, I'd be okay being surprised with #3. Fate's choice. Radiation eyes? Lightning that zaps from my fingertips? Super taste buds? I'd be okay with any of that.
Who has positively influenced your writing?
I love Roald Dahl. I study and reread his books all the time. I read “James and the Giant Peach” at least once a year and I always come away with some new nugget. I also love George Saunders' book “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip”. Such a brilliant, weird, unexpected story. I adore it!
I'm also very thankful to Mrs. Simpson, my 10th grade English teacher. She really drilled grammar and technique into us. I still remember the comma rules she pounded into us. And yet, she was very open to creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.
For my final exam, instead of writing a paper, she let us decide our own version of creative storytelling. I got to do a monologue from Othello. I still have it memorized, and still remember doing it for the class.
Who is your agent and how has he/she helped your writing career?
My agent is Paul Rodeen, of Rodeen Literary Management. Paul is a great advocate and a great friend, and I adore our partnership.
He's helped me with all the things you'd expect...negotiating better terms, bigger advances, etc. But the thing I love most about our relationship is that we're true partners. We decide together where we're going to take my career next, what I'm going to focus on, what publishers are the right publishers for the career choices we're making. It's a perfect marriage.
He really listens and wants to develop a strategy TOGETHER, and that's what I love.
Do you have a query letter to share with newbie writers? We’d love to see how you landed your first gig.
Sure, I've attached it here. It was my letter to Bloomsbury for CHICKS AND SALSA, which they eventually acquired. I've also attached my followup letter to them, after they requested revisions on the first draft. It was after that (9 months after that, to be exact) that they called to accept the book.
I always tried to keep things very professional, and I think you see that in the letter. I feel like that has served me well over the years. If you know my personality or my books, you know that I'm kind of a big goofball. But it was always important to come off as a professional goofball.
000 Oh Drive
Superman River, IL 60020
March 10, 2003
Victoria Wells Arms
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Dear Ms. Arms,
I appreciated learning more about you and your company at the recent SCBWI Conference in New York. From what I learned, I felt that my work would be an appropriate and fitting submission to you. This was confirmed by Susan O’Keefe, the New Jersey SCBWI Advisor, who, upon reading my newest picture book manuscript at the conference, strongly suggested that I send it to you. Therefore, I am submitting the attached picture book manuscript, “Chicks and Salsa” for your consideration. I hope you enjoy it.
Nuthatcher Farm is a typical American farm, until the chickens decide that they are tired of chicken feed. But when the rooster becomes inspired by the spicy and savory flavors of the southwest, the results are delicious! Children ages 4-8 will love this saucy, silly tale.
I have recently signed a contract with Zonderkids Publishing for a series of three picture books, to be published in 2004. Additionally, I currently have published over 30 short plays, written for children and published by Willow Creek Publishing. I write full time for Promiseland, a children's ministry that teaches 3600 children every weekend. I am also a member of SCBWI.
I have enclosed a SASE for the return of my manuscript, should it not fit your needs. Please be advised that a few other select publishers are reviewing this manuscript as well.
Thank you for considering “Chicks and Salsa”. I look forward to hearing from you.
Once he received the critique he responded with below:
000 Oh Drive
Superman River, IL 60020
October 3, 2003
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Dear Ms. Romeis,
Thank you for your detailed critique of CHICKS AND SALSA. I’m thrilled that you and your colleagues enjoyed it and was excited to revise it after reading your comments. Enclosed please find the revised manuscript. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
As always, I have enclosed a SASE for your convenience.
Thanks again. I look forward to hearing from you.
How easy or difficult is it to book school visits? For a newbie writer – what is the first step?
I think they kind of have to find you in the beginning. That's how it was for me. I didn't know anything about school visits...didn't even know authors did them...until I had three or four books out. Then, after CHICKS AND SALSA (my fourth book), teachers and librarians started seeking me out.
After that, it was a lot of word-of-mouth. I've been active in the past at trying to book visits, but the bulk of my visits come in through referrals from librarians or teachers who loved by presentations and passed my name along.
Who is your biggest cheerleader?
Hands down, my wife Michelle. She is unwavering in her support and encouragement. In the YEARS it took to get first published, when I was receiving literally hundreds of rejection letters, she never doubted it would happen. She always said “it's just a matter of time”. And she truly believed it. She never had any doubts that I could make my dreams come true.
Describe your writing process. Do you use an outline? Word association? Just sit and write?
Usually I'll sit down with just the spark of an idea. Maybe it's a title...like with CHICKS AND SALSA, that was all I had. But I sat down with that and the story found it's way to me.
With CREEPY CARROTS!, I just had the nugget of an idea...a vegetables bullying a bunny. That seemed HILARIOUS to me. But the story fleshed out in the act of sitting there and slugging it out on paper or the computer. I rarely work from an outline.
How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success?
If each person who reads this interview could go and buy...say...4000 copies of my newest book, CARNIVORES, that would rock.
Seriously, I'm very appreciative to the grassroots impact that blogs and word-of-mouth has to make or break the success of books. It may feel that a simple “share” of blog posts like this on social media, or reading the book to your cub scout or daisy troop might not make an impact, but it's huge! Books go big because of folks like you that love books and love to spread the word about them. So gab it up, wouldja?
Any big news?
My newest book CARNIVORES just hit shelves on August 20, and I've been thrilled with the response from kids, bloggers, critics, really everyone. I love that book and am excited to have it out there being read.
I also have a new book coming out next Spring with Chronicle Books. It's called HERE COMES DESTRUCTOSAURUS! and it's illustrated by the fabulous Jeremy Tankard, who's stuff is so weird and quirky in its own right.