Today’s Simply 7 is with another debut picture book author. I always love hearing what succeeded for someone’s first publication.
Valerie Bolling has been an educator for over 25 years and a writer since age 4. In addition to writing picture books, she has also written magazine articles and poetry. You can learn more about her at her website.
“Let’s Dance” is a delightful look at dance around the world. Somehow, this book was able to capture in words the joys of movement and the variety of dances that kids might enjoy. The illustrations by Maine Diaz are also able to capture that movement and glee that is so inherent in children’s dance. It’s quite a feat on both sides.
Me: What draws you to writing picture books in particular?
Valerie: Children need to see themselves in books. I want all children to feel seen and heard, valued and validated.
When I taught elementary students, it was difficult to find diverse literature for them. I think about those children, who are now adults, as well as my young nieces, ages 5 and 7. I strive to promote a world of equity and inclusion – of peace and joy – and I can do that with my words and in my interactions with children as I share my books with them.
Me: I love a good ballroom dancing movie. Everything from Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom” to the Japanese version of “Shall We Dance?” to the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom.” Your book is every bit the same cultural delight in movement. What gave you the idea?
Valerie: It was actually my editor, Jes Negrón, who came up with the cultural dance theme. I wanted to showcase dance in a way that celebrates diversity – and that leaves no doubt that dancing is indeed for everyone!
What I love is that Jes expanded upon my diverse, inclusive vision by creating a more global theme. Where I saw “Tappity-tap/Fingers snap” as tap dance, she imagined flamenco from Spain. I envisioned the electric or cha-cha slide for “Glide and slide/Side to side,” but Jes suggested long sleeve dancing from China.
Me: I love that! This is your debut picture book (yay!) with an incredibly sparse text. Was this more of a challenge to revise? Did you find it hard to sell a book that wasn’t strictly plot based as a beginning writer?
Valerie: Fortunately, I had a fairly easy road to publication with Let’s Dance!, so the fact that it wasn’t plot-based or character-driven didn’t have an adverse effect.
In terms of revision, with sparse text that rhymes (60 words, excluding back matter), every word makes a difference and has to be chosen thoughtfully. The words must be precise, and the scansion must be tight. I didn’t find it more of a challenge to revise this book. In fact, my books that are stories have gone through many more revisions than Let’s Dance!, and I know more revisions will be made.
Me: The illustrations in this book are wonderful. Did you communicate with the illustrator, Maine Diaz, about her work at all?
Valerie: Maine Diaz is extremely talented. She brought my words, my vision, and Jes’ vision to life. Her gorgeous, energetic illustrations truly make my book dance!
Jes allowed me to weigh in on the selection of an illustrator, and she also shared sketches with me two or three times throughout the process and considered my feedback – even making changes based on it. However, Maine and I never communicated throughout the process.
When I received the PDF of Let’s Dance!, I was THRILLED! It was, at that point, that I searched for Maine’s contact info online and reached out to her with a gratitude email.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Valerie: I’m not sure I had any surprises while writing the story. The surprises I experienced came later, and there are three.
- Illustrations: Though I had seen sketches along the way, they didn’t prepare me for the masterpieces Maine created from cover to end pages to spreads to back matter. The illustration that most surprised and pleased me, however, was the ballet spread because it most clearly manifests my vision for diversity. Traditionally, ballerinas are considered to be white, female, and thin. This spread has a girl in hijab, a dancer of African descent (reminiscent of Misty Copeland), and a child whose gender is indiscernible. That child was a super-special surprise because I had said to Jes, “I want a boy in a tutu.” The fact that the child’s gender isn’t clear is even better!
- Promotions: I had no idea the amount of time and energy required to promote a book. It’s like having another job! I said to someone that if I had known all that was involved in this process, I might’ve decided to wait until retirement. However, if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have a book published now. Also, hopefully, I’ll have other books published, and now I’ll know what to expect and, more importantly, have already made contacts for promotion that I can call upon again.
- Launch Event: My launch event was AMAZING! It was held at a local library four days after my book was released. There were more than 200 people in attendance, the largest number the library reported ever having for an event! It was standing room only; people were even standing outside of the large auditorium. There was dancing, reading, a raffle, and book signing. The book sold out. Most important was that the audience and I had a fabulous time!
Me: You are an educator as well as a writer. I always find this interesting combination (as I am too). How do you balance the demand of that work, and the creative energy needed to write?
Valerie: It’s definitely a challenge. Thankfully, I’m very organized and task-oriented. I’m not afraid to create a schedule and lists and stick to them! I write late at night until 12 or 1 a.m., and I reserve chunks of time for writing on the weekends, usually on Sundays.
Life is a balancing act. Writing is important but not more than my full-time job, exercise, and time with family and friends. I enjoy writing, which is why I make the time for it. It energizes me and feeds my soul. If it becomes unenjoyable or causes me unhealthy stress, I can stop. Knowing that is quite freeing.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Valerie: If I could only give one piece of advice, it would be: Go for it! More specifically, I suggest the following:
- Immerse yourself in writing opportunities and in the writing community by taking a course, joining SCBWI, going to conferences, joining a critique group, and participating in contests.
- Continue writing, even when you face rejection.
That is great advice as rejection happens to us all. Thank you for visiting my blog today Valerie. Dear readers, if you want to find out how to sculpt a sparse text, this is a great book to read. And if you love dance, this is definitely the book for you!