Thursday, July 12, 2012

Interview with Nikki Shannon Smith: Author of The Little Christmas Elf


Nikki Shannon Smith

The Little Christmas Elf


I met Nikki on Facebook, but we both belong to SCBWI and have attended the same workshops before. I remember meeting her last year, and now I get to interview her. 

She's been a volunteer and a great help to the workshop I am currently on the board of - The SCBWI SF North & East Bay Region Fall Conference in Oakland. This year it's on October 20th, so sign up now. 

Nikki has a smile that goes on for miles. She is a genuine person and has a big heart. And she's no flake....certainly no fluke. 

Read on to know more about her and her ideas on the kid's writing world.

        You grew up in the same place you were born: How did this enhance your writing?

    I was born and raised in Oakland, CA., which is a very diverse place. I got to know many different kinds of people and had different kinds of people as friends, so I’m sure I draw on that when I develop characters. I also think a child gains a sense of security and confidence in a stable environment, so it’s possible that led me to be a person who is willing to try new things and take risks. I did set my last young adult manuscript in Oakland, but I combined real settings with fictional ones.

   Describe your writing in 5 words:

   My inner child takes over.

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

    I work full-time at an elementary school, and most days, I’m up at 6:00. On a good day, I have Raisin Bran for breakfast. Occasionally, I’ll grab Starbucks coffee and a breakfast sandwich. On a bad day, I skip breakfast. During the summer and on weekends, I sleep in a bit until about 7:30. On those days, I eat a variety of foods. I usually make homemade waffles on Sunday mornings.

   Where’s the best place to get a cup of Joe in your hometown?

   My parents’ kitchen was the only place I ever had coffee when I lived in Oakland. I guess there was no need to go anywhere else!

    What’s the funniest thing one of your students has asked you about writing?

     People tend to underestimate children. 

    They ask great questions. Some of their comments, though…wow. I was reading The Little Christmas Elf to a group of kindergarteners, and I got to the point in the story where the elves hear hoofbeats. I asked the children, “Who do you think it is?” One of them yelled in a very boisterous voice, “PIGGIES!!!” I had to bite my cheeks to keep from laughing. That’s why I love kids. There is never a dull moment.

    Why write?

    I love writing. Writing is something that is just mine, something to do for myself and by myself. It provides a creative outlet and escape. It balances my life and probably my personality. I also want to contribute books with characters from diverse backgrounds so all children see themselves in literature.

   What genre is your favorite to write? To read?

    When I began, my favorite genre to write was picture books; that was all I wrote. Now, I favor YA. I haven’t written a picture book in a while, although I have revisited a few old ones. I particularly love to read humorous picture books and young adult novels that are disturbing on some level.

   How many rejections did you get before you were published?
    This question makes me want to go count rejections received prior to the sale of ELF in June 2010. I’m a precise sort of person. I’ll be back…
                  Okay, so I counted 27 rejections/no responses total, which includes all submissions of all manuscripts sent before I got “the call.” It doesn’t count contests or grants. 

    I got two “no responses” on The Little Christmas Elf before selling it to Diane Muldrow at Random House/Golden Books. That’s really not bad, considering the stories I’ve heard. I am also very careful about my submissions. I do a lot of research first, and often send exclusives.

    Did you ever want to give up on writing? If so, what kept you going?
    I’m a tenacious one. I don’t tend to even consider giving up on something important to me. In fact, perseverance is the theme of The Little Christmas Elf (although I didn’t set out for it to be).

   Who is your biggest cheerleader?
    I’m lucky. I’m surrounded by people who encourage me every day, from co-workers, to students and their parents, to my critique group, to my very huge extended family. My husband and children are also very supportive. I think the loudest cheerleader is my daughter. She’s the one who screamed when I announced that ELF sold. She’s the one with disappointment in her eyes when rejections come in. She is also my publicist because I’m very shy about promoting myself. She’s constantly informing people that I am a published author. Once, I was in a store signing a credit card receipt, and she said to the clerk, “Do you know you just got the autograph of a famous author?” I’m positive my face was bright red, but it also warms my heart that she is so proud.

    What are you working on right now?
    I have a contemporary young adult novel out on submission right now, and my current work-in-progress is also young adult. I don’t want to divulge too much about it, but I will say that I have scared myself more than once with this manuscript. The main character speaks to me. She makes me write things I wasn’t planning to write. She is not nice. Not nice at all.

    How hard is it to get your class to read? Any tricks?
    I have never had a hard time getting kids to read, no matter what type of demographic I’m working with. 

    I think the trick is that I sincerely love to read myself, and often read books to my students for no reason. No test or quiz, no paper to write, just reading for fun. I also read many picture books, which gives less fluent readers “permission” to read picture books as well. Sadly, kids don’t always get a chance to read for fun at school because of the pressure on teachers to make it through the grade-level curriculum. I pick my own favorite books to share at the beginning of the year, and by the end of the year, children are bringing their favorite books to class and asking me to share them with everyone!

    What’s the best thing about being published? Worst?
    The best things about being published are: knowing I reached a goal, seeing my book in print, and knowing it’s available to children. I also love speaking at conferences, because I think my publishing story is encouraging to other writers. 

    The worst thing right now is worrying that I won’t sell another book. (Have you seen those “One Hit Wonder” and “Where Are They Now?” shows?) It’s not about money or notoriety but about proving to myself that the first one wasn’t a fluke!

    Who are you reading?
    Disclaimer: I am always WAY behind on my reading list. By the time I read the Twilight series all four of the books were out. With that said, I’m reading Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.

    What words of advice do you have for fellow writers?
    Write what comes from your heart and soul. Take yourself seriously, learn as much as you can from others, and treat writing like a profession. The rest will follow.

    Did anything surprise you about being an author?
    I have always been in awe of published children’s authors, but for some reason, it surprises me when people give me special treatment because I’m published.

   What’s the best thing about book signings? Worst?
    I love people, so the best thing is meeting and talking with readers, especially children who want to write. 

       It’s a gift to be in the position 
to encourage a child to dream big. 
    The worst thing is the fear of messing up someone’s book by making a mistake while I’m signing!

    Did you take writing classes before you became an author? Any to suggest?
    Nope! I just opened a word document and got started. Being a teacher for eighteen years, I have read hundreds (thousands?) of children’s books, so I’m sure that helped. I learn a lot attending conferences and reading reference books.

    Do you belong to any writer’s associations? If so, which ones and why?
    Only Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). I joined the same week I realized I needed to write, and have found that it offers me resources at every stage of my career. I love the camaraderie at SCBWI conferences, and I also love being a volunteer and giving back. I found SCBWI via the website of one of my favorite children’s authors, Nikki Grimes, when I was researching how to get started.

    What one word best describes you?

    Is there anything on your writing desk that is a MUST-have for you to be able to write?
    I keep a cup of ultra-fine point Sharpie pens on my desk. My favorite color is magenta. I use these for editing/revising. I also keep a pad of lined post-it note paper next to me for ideas I want to remember later.

    What type of coffee or tea do you drink?
    When I’m treating myself (and disregarding caloric intake), Starbucks Grande Caramel Mocha. When I’m home, Starbucks Sumatra Coffee or Celestial Seasonings Herbal Tea (Bengal Spice or Sugar Plum Spice).

    Any big news?
    The Little Christmas Elf had a great first season during Christmas 2011, and will be part of a boxed set called Favorite Little Golden Books for Christmas this year, releasing on 9/11/12. Included will be The Little Christmas Elf, The Animals’ Christmas Eve, The Christmas Story, The Night Before Christmas, and The Poky Little Puppy’s First Christmas. I’m thrilled and honored that my book is a part of this set!

    In unrelated news… I just got my first job as an elementary school principal, so I have a lot to look forward to this fall.

    Wow, Nikki! Thank you for this awesome interview! I hope your YA book is a smash and The Little Christmas Elf keeps rising! 
     If you'd like to check out Nikki's other books check out her links:
        Nikki's Author Website 

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