Today we get to meet another debut picture book author in the latest Simply 7 interview.
Michael J. Armstrong previously served as the Executive Director of The ALS Association, The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and other nonprofit organizations. He is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Best Day Ever is his first book. You can learn more about him at his website.
“Best Day Ever” is a funny book for all of us who are so focused on our goals that we sometimes miss what’s going on around us. I can totally relate to being that detail oriented person. I’ve got 3 calendars–no wait, 4 calendars! This is just to keep track of different goals, appointments, and deadlines. I’ve always been this way. Busy, busy, busy! It’s how I get things done (and so many of them at that, as people are always telling me). This is why I giggled constantly over this story.
William has a “to do” list for his summer and it’s the last day before school starts back up. There’s only one thing left on his list “have most fun ever.” Can we plan for fun? I laughed because I used to make “to do” lists with impossible things like “learn French” for every school break too, all through college. Even now, I have a giant list of goals to accomplish this summer that I’m hoping to tackle! This book is perfect for those kiddos who have a blueprint for play time.
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Michael: I’ve always enjoyed writing. But I honestly never considered picture books until my daughter was born. I was a stay-at-home dad, so I was constantly reading her picture books. Some were really great. Some not so much (in my totally subjective and uninformed opinion). Eventually I had that thought that so many parents have: I bet I could write picture books. Ha! Silly daddy.
Anyway, shortly after I started working on my first book, I realized how hard this process actually is. I spent the next five years reading books, taking classes, going to conferences, and doing whatever I could to learn the craft. I’m still have so much to learn.
Me: This is your debut picture book. Yay! Tell us about your journey to success. Was it short or long? Fraught with disappointment, peril, or multiple celebrations?
Michael: Thanks! I think my path was atypical. I met an editor at an SCBWI conference who took an interest in a manuscript that I was drafting. When he read it, his exact words were, “I can fix this.” He gave me some notes, which I furiously followed, and he acquired the revised manuscript shortly after that. But then…he left the publisher. Worried, I flew to New York to meet with the new editor assigned to my book to make sure she was on board. She was. Then she left. Then I met with the next one. Then two more left. I’m now on my fifth editor, and each time I was convinced that my book was going to end up on the chopping block. And each time I would tamp down my excitement. So, I’ve been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for the past two and a half years. And then, of course, COVID-19 happens and my release gets pushed back a month.
But now we’re at the point of no return. It’s inevitable. And despite all my whining above, it’s totally worth it.
Me: Wow! I’m so sorry. That sounds challenging! The illustrations in this book by Eglantine Ceulemans are wonderful. I particularly love the first picture of William in his bedroom as you get SUCH a sense of how accomplished he is and determined to succeed. Was this all the illustrator’s idea? Did you have any art notes?
Michael: Eglantine is just fantastic. I am so grateful that she illustrated this book. And I think it really showcases her talent.
Because the book is dialogue-only, I did have quite a few art notes. But I tried to limit them to things that were absolutely necessary to drive the story forward. In William’s room, for example, this is my actual note:
(ILLO: A chart in an immaculate bedroom lists William’s Summer Goals: 1) Math Camp MVP, 2) Read 50 Books, 3) Hablar Español, 4) Black Belt in Karate, 5) Perfect Guitar Recital, 6) Have Most Fun Ever. All are crossed off except #6. William is holding a homemade “Fun Meter.”)
Of course, then Eglantine took that note and created a lush, unmistakable spread.
Me: The character of William reminds me of a few kids I’ve known who were on the autism spectrum. Was this your intention with this character? Was the character based on anyone you know?
Michael: Actually, William is based on me as an adult. Early on, I took my role as a stay-at-home dad very seriously. I packed my daughter’s days with activities and other “important” stuff. One day we were out in the backyard and I was trying to catch a moment to myself as she was playing. There were all these “educational” toys laying around, and she was playing with a stick. And she was having the best time ever. That’s when it clicked for me. I needed to stop being so serious and just let her run wild. Almost as important, I needed to lighten up and let myself run wild. I still have to work at it, but I think I’m a better dad because of it.
So no, that wasn’t my intent, but I did recognize that William could be read that way. I tried very hard to respect both his and Anna’s personality and not turn them into caricatures.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Michael: For me, it was that nearly every piece of criticism – especially the ones that were hard to swallow – helped to make it a better book. Whether you accept the criticism or not, it pulls you out of your “story box” and forces you to see it from another angle. And that always helps you to understand your story and characters better.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Michael: Find good critique partners that will tell you the hard truth about your writing. If you need a supportive group as well – and we all do at times – that’s fine. But then have two groups: one supportive and one brutally honest.
And don’t get too precious or emotionally invested in any specific piece of writing. If you do, you’ll just get defensive when you receive criticism and you’ll miss out on good advice. I speak from experience here.
Me: What is your favorite thing to do for fun? What would create your “best day ever”?
Michael: Well, it’s not always fun to do, but I practice mindful meditation. I tend to be a task-driven person who plows through one project to the next. Because of that, I don’t always take the time to enjoy the moment, or just spend time being silly with my daughter. Meditation helps me to slow down and make those moments happen. So, my Best Day Ever would be one that is filled with those moments.
Also, I play the ukulele. =)
LOL! That’s on one of my lists to learn someday! Dear readers, you’ve got to track this book down and give it a read. It will definitely give you a giggle or two!