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Ishta Mercurio is an author and actor. Raised in Cincinnati, she has traveled to England, Scotland, Italy, France, and all over the United States. She now lives in Brampton, Ontario, where she films and photographs plants and wildlife, from the tall to the small, in her backyard. I met Ishta through our local Torkidlit group and CANSCAIP. You can find out more about Ishta and her work at her website IshtaMercurio.com, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

SMALL WORLD is Ishta's debut as a picture book author! The gorgeous illustrations are by Jen Corace. Thanks to Abrams for sending me a copy. Wow, check out what was beneath the dust jacket:

Lyrical writing and (as I mentioned above) stunning illustrations, plus I *love* that the little girl grows up to be an astronaut.

SMALL WORLD comes out from ABRAMS Books for Young Readers on July 2, 2019. Read more about Small World on the publisher's website.

Synopsis: "This geometric meditation on wonder follows Nanda as she grows and her wonder at the world and all that it holds--from cogs and wheels to fractals in snowflakes--grows with her, from the circle of her mother's arms to the city and countryside and all the way to space." Check out the reviews at Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Shelf Awareness!

Q. Could you please take a photo or video of something in your office and tell us the story behind it?

Ishta’s Wind-Up Bug - YouTube

This is a little wind-up "bug" that I got one year for Christmas. I've always loved mechanical things, especially the ones where you can see the parts as they move and you can figure out how they work. Computers kind of mystify me, because so much of how they work is based on electrical signals and code. It's all hidden. (My kids understand them, but I don't!) I'm a physical person, and I like playing with things with moving parts, where I can see the cause and effect of how those parts fit together and what they do and what part each piece plays in the working of the machine.

Q. What advice do you have for young writers?

When in doubt, throw it out! We say this about food that you think miiiiight have gone bad, but you're not completely sure, right? But it's true of writing, too! If you're not absolutely sure that a draft or a scene or a sentence is working, throw it out! I get really hung up on the words that are there, and putting them where I can't see them--either in an Outtakes folder or by printing them and filing that draft away and then deleting the words from my manuscript--allows me to move on and to try a different approach. And thrown-out words are never wasted. They all help hone in on the heart of the story you're trying to tell. As long as you keep the heart of the story at the front of your mind, you can throw out everything you've done and know that whatever you write next will be one step closer to the truest, best version.

Q. What are you excited about right now?

SUMMER! I love summer. Feeling that hot summer sun on my skin is one of my favorite things.

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For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.Also see Advice For Young Writers and Illustrators, a compilation of tips generously offered by children's book creators I've interviewed over the years.

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In prep for my Social Media Masterclass for Authors and Illustrators at SCBWI-Illinois, I posted a survey for editors, agents and art directors and 25 responded. Only one freelance art director responded (feel free browse art directors' responses in the similar poll in 2014, which also includes responses from editors and agents), but there were 11 responses from PAL editors, 10 responses from agents, and 3 responses from "Other". For those that don't know, PAL stands for "Published and Listed" and PAL Publishers are traditional publishing houses that do not charge money to authors or illustrated. You can find a list of PAL Publishers on the SCBWI website. Be aware that these industry surveys are informal, and those who participate in them are those who are already online, and are mainly those who follow me on Twitter - I posted the link to my survey on Twitter, FB and Instagram. Most respondents chose to remain anonymous. Thanks to all who participated!

Summary and Takeaways:

Overall, the results were very similar to my poll from 2014. In general: when editors, agents and art directors look you up online, the main turn-offs include unprofessional behaviour and overall negativity. Before they commit to working with you longterm, they want to find out more about you. Make it easy for them to find out more information about you: keep your website updated and easy to navigate, make your portfolio (for illustrators) easy to find, make it easy for them to contact you.

If you read the comments, you will notice that different people are looking for different things. Don't feel overwhelmed! In the end, you need to figure out how YOU want to use social media. What are your specific goals? What type of connections do you want to make? You will save yourself a great deal of time and frustration if you are working toward a particular goal (rather than "my publisher wants me to be on social media so here I am"). Jane Kelly recently interviewed me about social media on the SCBWI Wisconsin blog; feel free to browse for tips.

MORE DETAILS AND COMMENTS FROM THOSE WHO ANSWERED MY SURVEY:

**** Also see comments from my 2014 survey.

In answer to the question "How important has social media been in your discovery of new clients / book creators?", 40% said it was somewhat important, 36% said very important and 24% said not very important.

In answer to the question "When you are considering taking on a new client / author / illustrator, do you ever research them online?", 84% said that yes, they always research them online. The remaining 16% said that yes, they sometimes research them online.

In answer to the question "If you do online research before signing on a client / author / illustrator, has your research ever made you decide NOT to sign them on?", 52% said that yes, they have (at least once) decided to NOT sign someone on after online research. 

In answer to the question "Which social media do you tend to use most often?" (check all that apply), Twitter came out on top with 96% (not surprising, since most of the respondents follow me on Twitter) followed closely by Instagram (80%), then Facebook (56%) and YouTube (32%). Also mentioned by a few: Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Reddit. My advice: find 1-2 social media platforms that you enjoy - don't try to be everywhere!

In answer to the question "When browsing social media, do you ever browse Stories?", 28% said never, 24% said rarely, 20% chose "I have no idea what you're talking about", 16% said yes, all the time, and 12% said yes, sometimes.

COMMENTS (about turn-ons/turn-offs, what they look for, social media advice):

"I shy away from accounts that post mostly negative opinions, and anyone conservative-leaning. Other than that, humor and irony are appreciated, anything celebratory, positive or progressive, and cute animal pics. :)" - Agent

"I do like to see new work and process work as well as book promo. It’s tricky to balance but the best accounts also show personality and an awareness of other work being done in the field."

"I primarily research new illustrators and like to see a illustration portfolio within a few clicks of finding someone on social media." - Freelance art director

"Being inappropriate; someone who complains publicly about agents; someone who often leaps into heated arguments online; someone who is clearly jealous of successful people in the business." - Editor

"I appreciate genuine engaged social media interactions and value authors that can do this with ease as it is incredibly beneficial for both buzz and sales." - Jennifer Weltz, President of JVNLA, Inc.

"I look for professionalism." - Emma Dryden, Children's Editorial & Publishing Consultant, Drydenbooks

"I look for authors and illustrators who share their enthusiasm for what brings them joy, whether it’s a bird sighting or stumbling across an old comic book or sharing an esoteric fact in their research. I try to avoid authors and illustrators who are quick to “pile on” and express their outrage about the latest industry pariah (whether Junot Diaz, Kosoko Jackson, etc.)" - Agent

"Love when authors and illustrators interact with readers." - Editor

"If people have a website or blog, it should be up to date. If it can’t be up to date, take it down." - Erin Murphy, President of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

"We have to work together for a lengthy period. If you come across as difficult, rude, negative, or politically extreme it makes me think twice about working with you. There’s a lot of talent out there. Why would I put myself in that position?" - Editor

"For illustrators, extra work to see is good! For everyone, some evidence that you're not awful and don't just talk about writing is good, too. I just mostly want to know you are who you say you are." - Editor

"I look for professionalism above all. I look for authors who are effectively engaging to promote their books without stalking editors by filling up their social media feeds. That's a red flag for me. I also look always for evidence that creators are primarily focussed on developing their work and craft." - Agent

"Writers get more of a pass on social media, but for illustrators I definitely want to see them experimenting with different styles. If the rest of their work is too hard to find, or there's no link to a portfolio, that makes it harder to get interested." - Agent

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(Shortcut to this page, until next year's updated post: http://inkygirl.com/bookaday. Also see my #BookADay archives and Donalyn Miller's official #BookADay post on the Nerdy Book Club site.)

Donalyn Miller's 11th Annual #BookADay Challenge has officially launched! You can read about the history of #BookADay, guidelines and more via Donalyn's #BookADay post on the Nerdy Book Club website. While I read throughout the year, Donalyn's #BookADay challenge helps me rediscover my reading mojo. I also enjoy other people's book recommendations as well as sharing my own.

For you educators out there: Donalyn also mentions Jillian Heise's #ClassroomBookADay challenge, which you might consider for the next school year: the goal is to read a loud a picture book every day of the school year, to students at any grade level.

What I do: I read books I haven't read before but I also reread books as well, including picture books. I listen to audiobooks while I'm doing housework or other repetitive activities. I embrace all formats, not just print. I have books on-the-go everywhere in our house. Here are some of my tips for busy bibliophiles who have trouble finding time to read.

I'm trying to catch up with posting my own recommendations; you can read my text-only #BookADay archive links as well as see my #BookADay collages in my Padlet below; I also post on Flickr, Pinterest and Twitter.

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Paul Coccia is a Toronto author with an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and an avid home-baker. His debut young adult novel, Cub, is part of Orca's Soundings Series: short, high-interest novels specifically for teens. Paul lives and bakes with his nephew, three dogs and a little grey parrot. You can find Paul on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and also see Orca's interview with Paul on their blog.

To Torontonians: Paul is signing his book as well as celebrating diversity (of all types) in kids' books at Indigo Bay & Bloor (55 Bloor St. W.) on Pride Sunday, June 23, 2019 from 11:30 am - 3:30 pm; Paul is setting up a table with recommendations of books that appreciate difference. In case of last-minute event changes, please do check Paul's @pauljcoccia Twitter account closer to the date.

Quotes from a Kirkus review of Cub: "A gay Toronto foodie translates his love of pastry into love of self amid some mean-boy body shame." "The tough truth of marginalized communities attacking their own is difficult to face but accurate in its exposure of toxic behavior; Theo's shaky navigation is inspiring." Find out more about Cub on the Orca publisher site.

Q. Could you please take a photo of something in your office and tell us the story behind it?

My younger brother left Saint Dolly photo on my desk for a few weeks before making it clear that she was meant for me.

I think he bought it online but it is one of the few non-work things on my desk. Saint Dolly usually sits on top of my hard drive along with a gnome but as I was working in the garden, she came outside to hang with a different gnome crowd. Saint Dolly reminds me the value of a cup of ambition, working hard (at least 9 to 5), dreaming big (at least as big as a blown-out wig), and keeping a sense of humor particularly about myself.

Q. What advice do you have for young writers?

I first tried to get published at 17 years old and have a drawer of rejections that were mailed to me (that’s how it was done back then!) No one even read my manuscript. Admittedly, it may not have been that great. It took me almost two decades before I had my debut book, Cub, release when Orca Books took a chance on an unknown author. In those almost 20 years I didn’t get published, I worked on myself and at improving my craft. I was lucky enough to be able to pursue studying writing in university. I signed up for writing groups, entered contests and made a point of actually sitting down to write when I could have been distracted by other things. I pushed myself to explore new genres, try new forms or new styles even if only as an experiment, knowing that if I didn’t challenge myself, I wouldn’t grow. When I failed, and there were some epic fails (I’m likely never going to be a poet, for example), I tried to learn at least what didn’t work and why. The reward was the act of doing, not getting a contract or a book on the shelf, but producing work that I felt was done to the best of my ability and making me stronger.

As a result of making myself stretch out of my comfort zone , I walked away with more skills in my writer’s toolbox and the ability to keep acquiring skills. I had to learn it’s not being selfish to say no, to make time for your self-expression/art, to allow other people to do for themselves, and that my wants and needs are as valid as other people's. I’m still learning this. I think it can be hard, especially when you’re not feeling you’re having professional success to see pursuing what you do as worthwhile and not to let self-doubt stop you. It’s great to be able to pay your bills doing what you love to do and exciting to see your work out in the world, but until that happens:

- Be passionate about each project, particularly for yourself.

- Learn a lot, especially from those who know more and are willing to share.

- Don’t be afraid to fail epically because you can grow by trying new things, but will stagnate if you don’t.

The little things build up, sometimes when you’re not noticing, and you end up able to approach each new project with more than you had to give before.

Q. What are you excited about right now?

I’m really excited to be doing some baking! I’m sketching designs now of cakes for my nephew’s Pokemon-themed birthday.

I’ll need to ask him and his mom what their ideas are and that’s always fun to incorporate someone else’s ideas into a design. While I’m not a professional artist/illustrator or a professional baker, combining art and baking is a side of me that is not normally in use when I’m working on writing a book. It’s very different skills and sometimes those skills bleed into my written works (I did write a book about a teen baker!) I find that working with food as a medium reminds me that things don’t always go as planned, cake can have its own ideas about how it should work and settle, and that adapting to those unexpected challenges can be frustrating and rewarding… and if it all falls apart (and sometimes it does), you can eat and destroy all evidence.

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For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.Also see Advice For Young Writers and Illustrators, a compilation of tips generously offered by children's book creators I've interviewed over the years.

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Pat Cummings was one of my first illustration mentors, through the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program, and I've valued her friendship ever since. She's smart, funny, honest -- and incredibly experienced in the world of creating children's books. I'm thrilled to have her visit my blog!

Author and/or illustrator of over 40 books, Pat’s Pratt and Parsons classes and Children’s Book Boot Camp have put writers and illustrators together with publishers. She’s a board member of the Authors League Fund, Authors Guild and SCBWI, and member of WGAE. Trace, her first middle grade novel, was published by HarperCollins. You can find Pat Cummings via her website, Twitter and Facebook.

TRACE by Pat Cummings (see more info about TRACE on the HarperCollins website).

Cover illustrator: Erwin Madrid

Synopsis: When thirteen year-old Trace moves to Brooklyn following his parents’ death, he’s haunted by dreams of the car accident he alone survived. A ghostly encounter at the New York Public library challenges his understanding of family in a story based on two true events that occurred over 150 years apart.

Q. Could you please take a photo of something in your office and tell us the story behind it?

This is a corner of my workspace that haunts me. It's overrun with books.

Many moons ago, I thought that if only I had a comfy couch I could sit and read every evening. (Cup of tea, soft pillow, cat purring nearby…).

But as much as I weed the picture books on my shelves (giving them to kids or my students at Pratt and Parsons) I can’t help bringing in more. The books are winning. Most days, the comfy couch is merely a staging area: I stack up books for class or for speaking engagements. Shelves and tables have been added, stacks on the floor and around the loft lurk outside this area. But I don’t seem able to give a book away until I've read it. You see the problem.

Q. What advice do you have for young writers?

ADVICE FOR ILLUSTRATORS:

Join SCBWI. Immediately. It is the closest you’ll come to taking a course in EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CHILDREN’S BOOKS.

Trim your portfolio to be sure that your work is consistent in quality. I see portfolios that may be 70% gorgeous and perfect for picture books but 30% not as proficient. I’ve heard from editors, art directors and agents that when they see portfolios like that, they think the illustrator just isn’t ready. It’s not that 30% of the work is necessarily bad it’s just that the illustrator didn’t realize it isn't up to the level of their other work. It becomes a question of judgement. And most editors don’t have time to worry whether an artist will deliver a book that is only 70% fabulous.

Get the Society of Illustrators catalogue for the annual Original Art Show that happens every fall. That catalogue is, hands down, the most valuable publication any illustrator can use if they want to find out who is behind the picture books they love. It is the only resource I know of that gives the names of the art director and editor for some of the best books of the year. It’s handy to promote your work to someone who shares your tastes for what constitutes a great picture book. I encourage my students to not only get the book every year but to prepare promotional cards and be ready to target those editors and a.d.s who they’ve identified as being behind their favorite books. SOI sells the catalogue inexpensively on their site.

Make sure that your promotional pieces and imagery on the web are narrative and directed at young readers. If you can tell a story visually, if you employ dynamic elements like scale, color, perspective, texture….whatever, in a unique way, your imagery will stand out. Publishers receive hundreds of promotional cards every week. It’s not enough to be able to paint a gorgeous picture of a dog, for example. If you can capture a moment in that dog’s story when something is about to happen, then publishers will know you can create an image that will make a child want to read that story, want to turn the page and find out what happens next?

Keep good records. I think it’s wise to target editors and art directors and publishing houses you want to work with. Recording info about what you sent, when you sent it and to whom you sent it is important. I think promotional cards should go out three to four times a year. Not hearing back from someone the first time you do a mailing doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. So plan for a campaign: keep showing the range of what you can do and that you take the work seriously. Persistence and patience are invaluable in this business.

ADVICE FOR WRITERS:

Join SCBWI. Duh. For all the reasons above.

Form a writers group. It is so easy to be distracted by the time-consuming demands of real life. So carving out time to write can be difficult. With a group you’ll set a self-imposed deadline for producing work. And knowing that a meeting is coming up can make you sit down, even if it’s at midnight the day before, and get some words down on paper. Working with other writers, regardless of what their projects entail, can help keep you more focused and productive than you might be on your own.

Stay positive. There are so many naysayers who will tell you why you can’t do something or how hard it is to get your work published. Don’t be one of them. If this is what you want to do, this is what you do. Period. The biggest problem I see at workshops, in class and in the consultations I do with writers and illustrators is fear: fear that work will be rejected (it will, keep submitting), fear that their story has been done (it has. There are only a handful of story themes if you analyze them) and fear that their story isn’t good enough (keep working to make it better). Every project I’ve ever worked on began with a certain amount of fear: fear of the blank page. It is daunting to wrestle a story out of the ether, out of your psyche. Turning that page into a story is the most exhilarating, fun, horrifying, challenging, lovely, agonizing thing ever.

Q. What are you excited about right now?

Trying something new is a bit scary but thoroughly delicious. I’ve got two books out this year and both were exciting to work on for different reasons. Both took massive amounts of time and energy because, in large part, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But my general policy about making books is: If it’s not fun, I'm not doing it right. And both books were huge fun to do.

My first middle grade novel, Trace, was just published by HarperCollins. I now find myself totally in LOVE with being able to tell a long story. Picture books are wonderful and are the bulk of what I’ve done over the years. But having so much room for subplots and characters and mood-setting descriptions is luxurious and I’m completely hooked.

Yet as much as I want to pursue writing…more middle grade, a teen novel or (gasp) even an adult novel?…my overstuffed files of picture books started, stopped and waiting in the wings constantly call to me. Where is Mommy? a picture book that's coming out from Holiday House is my first partially digital book.

Launches from Holiday House on Nov. 12, 2019

And the learning curve was quite steep. After painting and coloring the illustrations by hand, I scanned and finished them in Photoshop. When the publisher asked for files to be scanned at 300 dpi, I scanned them at 600 dpi to give myself some wiggle room. And when I saw the paintings on my screen they were massive. In alarming detail, I could see all of the cat hair that was mixed into my paints. During the weeks spent cleaning up the art, I admit I considered caticide. But it finally occurred to me that if I couldn’t even see the cat hairs with the naked eye, that might not be the issue I thought it was. The art got finished. The cat survived.

The other thing I’m excited about is that so many of my former students and workshop participants are coming out with new books and have gotten started on what I think will be amazing careers. I love seeing the inventive, thoughtful and absolutely gorgeous books they’re all producing. And, of course, it’s always exciting to see the books in the hands of kids. At my bookstore launch for Trace, I warned a little 7 year-old who wanted an autographed copy that it was 300 pages at least. She politely told me that she was just finishing a book that was 380 pages long and it was the thirteenth one she’d read in the series. Yowie. With little readers like her out there, it’s easy to be excited about getting to the next story.

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For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive. Also see Advice For Young Writers and Illustrators, a compilation of tips generously offered by children's book creators I've interviewed over the years.

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Although I've been embracing Donalyn Miller's #BookADay challenge year-round, I don't always have a chance to post about what I'm reading. You can see my archive of my #BookADay and book recommendation posts here.

One of my #BookADay reads: BREAKOUT by Kate Messner, illustrated by Ellen Lindner (Bloomsbury).

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More info: Donalyn Miller's #BookADay Challenge - My #BookADay Archives (also see my visual #BookADay archive on Padlet, Flickr and Pinterest).

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