I’ve seen a lot of talk about sustainable food sources for the future, but I must admit I hadn’t heard of some of the ones included in today’s picture book. (And I LOVE learning something new.)
Mia Wenjen blogs about parenting, children’s books, and education at PragmaticMom.com and is the co-creator of Read Your World celebrating Multicultural Children’s Book Day, a non-profit celebrating diversity in children’s books. She has written several picture books, middle grades, and co-written several anthologies. She is the co-founder of Aquent, the world’s largest company staffing creative, digital, and marketing talent with 37 offices around the world. She lives in Boston with her husband, and three kids. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
FOOD FOR THE FUTURE: SUSTAINABLE FARMS AROUND THE WORLD is a nonfiction picture book that looks at a bunch of creative solutions all over the world for growing food. It’s a fascinating look at a multitude of ideas, quite a few I’d never heard of before: everything from rooftop gardens, and mushroom farms to some of my favorites (like underwater gardens in the ocean?!). Every page explores a different farm. This is a great STEM book I look forward to using in my classroom when we talk about the future and ways to try and help the world.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey? When did you start writing picture books? What brought you to this book?
Mia: In January of 2016, I took a children’s book writing class through my local Community Ed. I figured that we would have to write a picture book (wrong!) so I drafted Sumo Joe. My teacher and peers gave me feedback but then I sat on it, not sure if it was good enough to submit to anyone, though my middle daughter kept insisting that it was good enough to be published.
Right before I left for vacation in August, I sent it to Lee and Low’s New Voices competition because, thankfully, they did not require a Query Letter. A few months later, I received a letter that said that I didn’t win but would I like free editorial assistance? I jumped at this chance and made several rounds of revisions working with editor Kandace Costin for nearly a year. I was then offered a contract and Sumo Joe was released in June of 2019.
I landed an agent in an unusual way. I would get random emails that asked if I knew a certain type of diverse children’s book author such as Native American who write nonfiction picture books or Latinx who wrote middle grade fantasy. I would reply back with a list of people. When I received the question about Asian American authors who wrote non fiction biography picture books, I raised my own hand since I had a draft of an alphabet picture book about Asian American notables. I ended up writing “Asian Pacific American Heroes” for Scholastic through Lary Rosenblatt, CEO of 22MediaWorks, a media company that has created more than 300 books for large publishers.
During the Covid lockdown, Lary said that the book packaging business was dead but that he had just sold a picture book manuscript of one of his writers and did I have any on the shelf. I did, and he because my non-traditional agent. We sold six children’s book manuscripts last year, and Food for the Future was the first to emerge from that submission cycle.
It actually was the result of a rejected picture book manuscript about good luck symbols around the world. Editor Lisa Rosinsky at Barefoot Books loved this idea but couldn’t get Sales and Marketing to agree. She offered a meeting to kick around other ideas using the same format. I had covered Barefoot Books as a blogger for more than a decade and knew that they were interested in sustainability as I had just reviewed their book on water and renewable energy. I suggested sustainable farms and Lisa was excited about this idea. Two weeks later, I handed the picture book manuscript to her and the book came out an amazing 17 months later with gorgeous illustrations by Robert Sae-Heng. Barefoot Books is known for creating beautiful picture books but I didn’t realize how fast they could bring a book to life! It’s been an amazing experience working with their entire team!
Me: Wow! What a journey! I love the idea of sustainable farms around the world. I’ve never heard of some of these! What made you think of that idea as a picture book?
Mia: My son loves seafood, especially raw seafood, so we took him to oysters on the half shell for his 14th birthday where I saw a sign that said Oyster Farm Tours Available. We took the tour in Duxbury a year later and it was amazing! It was the first farm that came to mind as I blurted out my idea to Lisa. I also thought of the salt farm in Kauai when we were on vacation a few years ago. The visuals of a rust red earth against sparkling white salt were so stunning that I knew I wanted it in the book. I also remembered seeing these circular farms somewhere in Africa through social media. With these three unusual sustainable farms in my head, I figured that I could research the internet to find a dozen more examples!
Me: I was particularly fascinated by the biosphere in Italy. Underwater greenhouses? Fascinating! How long did it take you to research all the different facts that went into your story? Can you tell us a bit about your research process?
Mia: Google is my best friend when it comes to research. I just spent a few hours googling “sustainable farms” and all kinds of examples popped up. I wanted to balance Indigeneous examples with high tech inventions but all the farms had to be operating in the present time … that was my thought process. I also needed to find farms in all parts of the world so that required some shifting. For example, the oyster farm is now in Australia instead of Duxbury, Massachusetts. The seaweed farm in Japan was axed because I had too many farms in Asia and needed more in South America. The ancient terraced rice farm from Hiroshima that my ancestors farmed for hundreds of years became the terraced farm in Chile. I think I was able to find the examples I needed within a few days and I drafted the book within a week. Lisa then helped me make sure that we had geographic diversity for the second revision.
Me: Wow! That’s really interesting. Sad to let some go, but I get not wanting to focus on just one place. Do you have a favorite fact in the book that you learned from your research? Or was there one that had to be left out?
Mia: My favorite fun fact was not included in the book, but came out of my research. I didn’t realize shellfish cleaned the ocean, each type in their own way. I was astounded to realize that mussels REMOVE microplastics from the ocean. In fact, 5 kilograms of mussels remove a quarter of a million pieces of microplastics per hour by absorbing and then excreting them, without any harm to the mollusks. They are a cleaning machine. We need more mussel farms!
Me: WOW again! I didn’t know that! I’m astonished by how well written this is as a concept. Not only is your writing succinct, but it also rhymes! When did you decide to write it in rhyme? Was that in the very first draft? How many revisions did it take to get your text this tight?
Mia: I struggle to write lyrical prose so I find rhyming to be a fun challenge. The original picture book manuscript about good luck symbols around the world that was rejected consisted of two line rhyming couplets, so we kept that format. The trick is to find a pair of words related to the concept that rhyme and then build the couplet around that. If I can’t get it right, it usually means just diving deeper into the subject to learn more and that usually results in finding the rhyme. But I also give a lot of credit to my multiple editors at Barefoot Books who all helped to improve each of the rhymes. It was definitely a team effort and probably took a dozen revisions both large and small.
Me: Robert Sae-Heng’s illustrations in this book are perfect. They fit the topic so wonderfully and bring such joy to each page. Were there any illustration surprises for you? Any favorites?
Mia: I think the first two illustrations he submitted of the underwater biospheres and the salt farm are my favorite but honestly, it’s very hard to choose! I love them all. He added cultural aspects to the illustrations that I appreciate such as women in burkas for the honey farm set in Yemen, and women in hijabs planting seeds for the circular garden in Senegal.
It was also his idea to set the food forest in an urban setting based in Nairobi. A lot of children think that people in African only live in rural villages so that’s an important visual. I know that we changed the rhyme to reflect his illustration!
It was also an amazing coincidence that Robert grew up in Mexico on a farm that included growing mushrooms! He is half Mexican and half Thai. I’m half Chinese and half Japanese so it was so wonderful to see mixed ethnicity that isn’t very common. Of course, I had to set the mushroom farm in Mexico when I found that out!
Me: I love that! Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Mia: Write the stories that you want to see in the world. Let that mission drive your stories and sustain you though the journey to getting published. Every time I receive a rejection (and there are a LOT of them), it deflates me and I need time to recover. That’s ok. This is a tough business so knowing WHY you are doing this helps to steady the ship during the storm.
I think the key is just to keep going. We all have a learning curve in this business whether it’s to become a better writer or better sales/marketing person of your own brand, or a better public speaker. Yes, we are all a “brand of one” as children’s book creators and that means creating a platform to help sell books. Self publish if you just want to get your book out there. Just don’t give up. It’s exactly like learning a foreign language. Everyone can learn to speak conversationally in a new language. For some people, it’s very easy. For others, it takes years and years and includes total immersion. But we can all get there if we just keep at it.
That is wonderful advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Mia.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, you might want to track it down. It’s an incredible look at creative solutions around the world dealing with the hunger crisis and it’s written in rhyme! This is an incredible read you won’t want to miss.