Joint Interview: Author Vivian Kirkfield & Agent Essie White
I’m delighted to interview my dear writing friend and kindhearted author, Vivian Kirkfield. Plus, I have the pleasure of welcoming Essie White, Agent/Partner at Storm Literary Agency. Essie sold Vivian’s newest picture book, From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves, to Editor Ann Rider at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. From Here to There will be released on January 19th.
For our Kidlit Creatives Members, you have a chance to win a signed copy of From Here to There or a picture book critique by Vivian – winner’s choice! To WIN this special prize, follow the directions at the end of this post.
First, I want to share Illustrator Gilbert Ford’s amazing cover art!
Hi Vivian! Congratulations on your newest picture book, From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves. This book started as a picture book biography about the founder of the Greyhound Bus Company. Please share the back story.
Hi Manju! Thanks so much for having us today!
During school visits, one of the most popular questions from the kids is, “Where do you get your ideas?” The idea for the biography of the founder of the Greyhound Bus Company started with a phone conversation…with my sister. She told me about a friend of a friend who is the granddaughter of the founder of the Greyhound Bus Company and how he came here from Sweden in 1905. He spoke no English and only had $60 in his pocket. After several unsuccessful attempts at various lines of work, Eric Wickman started a car dealership, but when he couldn’t even sell the one car he had there as a showroom model, he bought it himself and began offering shuttle rides to the miners in Hibbing, Minnesota. The rides were so popular, he built a bus to hold more customers and built a business that became Greyhound. One of the coolest things is that he always tried to work together and partner with competitors. In fact, his biggest rival because his closest partner…so close that Eric’s daughter married his partner’s son. The story fascinated me and I wanted to learn more so I researched, reached out to the granddaughter, and wrote the story. And when Ann Rider at Houghton Mifflin received the manuscript, she had a vision for a compilation book that would include biographies of a wide range of people whose inventions changed the way the world moves.
Hi Essie! Why did Vivian’s Greyhound Bus Company manuscript appeal to you? How did you approach submitting it to editors?
As a former educator, I am often drawn to stories that expose children to other people, places, histories and experiences. I love nonfiction that teaches, but also reads like a fantastic story. Vivian is quite skilled at this. I think too, most kids tend to be fascinated by how familiar things (in this case, Greyhound buses) work, and how they first came to be. Also, vehicles are great subjects for picture book stories. They hold universal appeal, And, I had not yet read a story about a greyhound bus. Therefore, I saw this one as unique.
As with all stories, I formatted a submission list. This consisted of 7 editors whom I felt would be ideal candidates to review this manuscript. By that, I mean editors and publishing houses who I saw as good matches for this type of nonfiction project. As agents, we must try to give each project the best opportunity to succeed. That starts with trying to pair the manuscript, with the right editor, those who we see as most likely to respond to the project in a positive way. It’s a long road to acquisition but this is often the first step.
Once I formatted the list, I sent the manuscript out with a short query and information on Vivian.
Vivian: Please share in broad strokes the road to publishing for From Here to There, once Editor Ann Rider was onboard.
Ann Rider asked me to make a list of possible inventions, not just the car, the bus, the train and the rocket – but a more diverse group of things that move…or that help us move. I added innovations like the first folding wheelchair, created by a mining engineer who had been a high hurdler in college, but became paralyzed in a mining accident. I added the first manned hot-air balloon, envisioned by a boy who ran away from home because he had ADHD and couldn’t function in a school setting. And when I read about Raye Montague who led a team of engineers to develop the first computer-generated naval ship design even though she’d been told as a child that she could never be an engineer, I knew that would be one of my stories in the book.
I gave Ann a list of eight things that moved: Hot-Air Balloon, Bicycle, Steam Locomotive, Industrial Robot, Gas-Powered Automobile, Bus, Computer Ship Design, and Folding Wheelchair. “But where is the rocket?” she asked. “Kids love rockets!”
And then there were nine.
At this point, the contract was signed. It was early Fall and my deadline for the nine stories: May 1, 2018. I had about 7 or 8 months to complete the project. One manuscript was done…the bus story that she had fallen in love with. I already had a story about the Montgolfier brothers and their hot-air balloon that only needed to be tweaked to add the STEM sidebar information that the editor wanted for each story. That meant I had approximately one month for each manuscript…research, rough draft, and then revisions until each was a submission-ready engaging narrative with STEM sidebars.
I often encourage new writers to join critique groups. IMO, critique partners are like precious gems – and I treasure mine! Without them, I never would have been able to complete this project on time. I’d research one story while writing a rough draft of another and revising a third based on feedback from my critique groups, and polishing a fourth. It was definitely a challenging time! I sent the manuscripts to the editor via email and she’d send them back with her suggestions…in printed-out hard copies! Fortunately, there were very few changes needed…and most of them were minor. But then…she raised a concern about the rocket story – were rockets too advanced for young kids? At this point, I knew I didn’t have time to write ANOTHER full-length picture book story (each story in the book is between 550-800 words). And I knew she had been the one to request the rocket story. I did some research and found that even kindergarten age children attend Space Camps and learn the basics of rocket science. I sent the links to the editor with my thoughts…and she agreed that the rocket story should stay. This experience helped me realize how important it is to be flexible, but also to advocate for my work.
Once the editor had approved the manuscripts, she gave them to Gilbert Ford, the award-winning illustrator who had signed on for this project. (You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I heard he would be the illustrator) And, over the next year, tweaks were made to the text and copy-editors and fact-checkers got busy making sure everything was correct. There was more back-and-forth of the manuscripts and then I received the color layouts!!! Oh my gosh…I fell completely in love with Gilbert’s color palette! His illustrations brought the stories to life! I was asked to comment and give feedback on the color layouts and to let Ann know if I thought anything needed to be changed. I really appreciated how respectful the entire HMH team was of me and my words.
Essie: What was your role once Editor Ann Rider requested a collection of nine biographies from Vivian?
Ann expressed interest in a PB bio collection after reading Vivian’s first Greyhound bus story. But as Vivian stated, that collection grew! This started with one story but as each story was formatted, each one seemed essential. Each one added so much to the collection that minimizing seemed impossible at that point. But truthfully, I don’t think any of us realized how big this project would become. Or how much work that it would entail. Ann saw these as chapters but really, each story was a full-length picture book. Vivian wrote 9 picture books in a very short amount of time and she did it on her own. I was literally no help at all! But I knew she would get it done. I never thought she could not do this.
Nonfiction writing requires a tremendous amount of research and fact checking...which is really, more research. And then, there is the need to get permission for all photos used as well. That too, takes time and patience. Vivian handled this like a pro though, and managed to adhere to the deadlines Ann proposed. To be honest, once that contract was signed, most of the work was between Ann and Vivian. If a project is going smoothly, the agent has very little to do at that point. And Vivian ensured this project went smoothly.
Vivian: Every spread bursts with facts from manned balloon flight to computer-generated ship design. What resources did you use to learn about the people behind these inventions?
When I start out to write a nonfiction PB biography, I usually begin with online research. And that’s what I did for all nine of these stories. If there were YouTube videos, I watched those, even if the video wasn’t of the person, but only of the time period. That helps me get a feeling for what things were like. This was especially important since the stories in the book span hundreds of years, from the hot-air balloon in 1783 (did you know that Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time to negotiate the Treaty of Paris between the newly formed United States and England – and he was there, visiting with the King of France and watched the balloon ascension?) to the first computer-generator ship design in 1970 (did you know that when Raye Montague was seven-years-old, a tour guide told her SHE didn’t have to ever worry about becoming an engineer. It was 1942. It was Little Rock, Arkansas. And Raye was African American. So, what do you think Raye did? She ran home and told her mother that she was going to be an engineer).
Then I checked out any books that might have been mentioned in online articles. I spoke with my local librarian to see if she could suggest other sources of information. I also reached out to librarians and historical societies or museums in the towns or cities where my subjects lived or worked. And of course, if there was a family member still alive, I tried to connect with them. I was lucky to be able to get some information from Eric Wickman’s granddaughter. And I was able to speak with Raye Montague’s son.
But the most difficult story to research was the one about the folding wheelchair. There just wasn’t very much already written about Herbert Everest and Harry Jennings – which is surprising because their innovative improvement on the wheelchair didn’t happen that long ago. Plus, Herbert Everest’s company received the Presidential Citation in 1948 for hiring the differently-abled and he was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Medal from his alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines, for his utilization of his engineering training for the benefit of those unable to walk.
But I needed to find information about each subject BEFORE they became adults and built their invention because I wanted to start each story with an incident from their childhood that would show they had been curious about how things work. I contacted the library in the town where Everest lived and that helpful amazing librarian sent me this beautiful letter:
Hi Ms. Kirkfield,
You are very welcome. We love researching history, and especially the history of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City. There are interesting stories everywhere you look, and one doesn't have to be famous to have a good story to tell.
I've been working on researching Herbert Everest this afternoon, and can confirm some of the information you've provided such as his birth and death dates. He, his wife and their daughter were living in Oklahoma City in 1920; however, their home at that time is no longer extant. By 1930, they were living in Los Angeles where they remained.
Do you have any information on the location of the mine, or the name of the mining company? In 1918, he was a mining engineer for Southern Anthracite Coal Company in Russellville, Arkansas. His back was already broken on his WWI draft registration card. That card was dated September 1918. Noted on the card was that his signature was signed by his brother, which is the first time I've seen that notation on a draft card.
Lisa Bradley, MLIS
300 Park Avenue, Oklahoma City, OK 73102
We had several more email communications and she located more information that helped me craft an authentic narrative. You can be sure that Lisa Bradley is definitely on my list of people who will receive a copy of the book!
Essie: What qualities do you look for in a manuscript that makes it a good fit for your client list?
First and foremost, I must fall in love with the work, whether it is art or literature. (I represent authors and illustrators). And that does not mean finished work-I have to fall in love with the potential. I respond well to writing and art that I know will make a lasting impact on the child reader. I look for authors with that as their goal as well. This Is not always an easy profession but it can always be rewarding if we keep our young audience in mind. What we do must leave a positive impact on them somehow. I look for individuals similarly invested. And their work usually reflects that investment.
In general, the manuscript (or the art) must speak to me in a way that resonates, and makes it impossible to forget, to let go. So that magic might exist, even in unpolished projects. Therefore, I look for authors and artists willing to work and revise and work and revise, knowing that the children reading, deserve the very best they can create. I seek those that understand the responsibility involved and see their work as a vocation, not just a career.
In regards to clients specifically, I appreciate authors and illustrators who understand the collaborative process involved with bringing a book to publication, and who accept their role in that collaboration. I admire those that advocate for other authors and artists. I appreciate professionalism and dedication to the field. And I value those who see inclusion as beneficial to our agency and to the industry in general.
Thanks very much, Vivian and Essie!
Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting critique buddies all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the picturesque town of Bedford, New Hampshire. A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. She is the author many picture books including Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books); Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books); and the upcoming From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 19, 2021). You can connect with her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.
Essie White launched Storm Literary Agency in 2014. She now partners with Vicki Selvaggio, representing the finest in quality children’s literature and art. Essie enjoys connections with people worldwide, and her own clients hail from countries all over the world. Although Essie represents authors and illustrators of board books through YA, she remains most fond of picture books, especially those that both teach and entertain.
Essie White takes pride in the agency’s work, and especially the individuals that comprise that agency. She is thankful and appreciative of the efforts of those members who work hard to support one another, and to represent the best in children’s publishing, always mindful of those who reap the benefits--the children. http://www.stormliteraryagency.com
Prize offer: For a chance to win a signed copy of From Here to There or a picture book critique, leave a comment on our Kidlit Creatives page (must be a member) and share this interview on Twitter or Facebook. Deadline to enter is January 18.
All posts on Manju's blog promote members of Kidlit Creatives: Create, Query & Support. Request to join us by hopping over to our FB page.