Throughout 2020, I’m interviewing the new authors & illustrators of the group Perfect 2020 PBs. Today, the spotlight is shining on author A.J. Irving. Her debut picture book, Dance Like A Leaf, illustrated by Claudia Navarro, is out today from Barefoot Books.
Welcome, A.J., and Happy Book Birthday! Thrilled to chat with you today! Tell us what Dance Like A Leaf is all about.
Thanks so much for having me! My book’s official synopsis goes like this:
As her grandmother’s health declines, a young girl begins to lovingly take the lead in their cozy shared autumn traditions. Poetic prose paired with evocative illustrations by Mexican illustrator Claudia Navarro make for a beautiful celebration of life and a gentle introduction to the death of a loved one.
Beautiful. Would you share what inspired you to tackle such a powerful yet delicate topic?
I remember it vividly. My grandma and I were pen pals all my life. DANCE LIKE A LEAF was inspired by the last letter I wrote her. I went on three walks the day I learned my grandma’s life was nearing the end. It was a gorgeous autumn day. I brought a notebook with me on the third
walk to write her a letter. I read the letter at her service. So many folks told me how much they were moved by my words. That’s when I knew I had to write a picture book for her.
How amazing it must feel to know that your gift to her will now be a gift for thousands of readers! This is your first book. What can you tell us about your journey to publication? How long have you been pursuing this dream?
I have been pursuing this dream since childhood. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I changed my mind a lot about the type of writing I wanted to do. I wanted to write novels when I was in elementary school. I wanted to be a sportswriter in junior high school, an investigative journalist in high school, and a freelance magazine writer for publications like Bitch, Bust, and Ms. when I was in college. I rediscovered my love of kidlit after my 12-year-old son was born. I’ve been writing picture books ever since.
I didn’t know what I was doing at first. I made a lot of mistakes and received a lot of rejections, but I didn’t give up. I became serious about my craft in 2014. I joined SCBWI, 12×12, and connected with my first critique group. In 2018, I pitched my debut picture book in #KidPit on Twitter, and received a heart from my editor, Kate DePalma.
What originally sparked your interest in writing? And what spurred you to pursue this path professionally? What other fields have you worked in?
My mom told me I had a gift with words when I was growing up. She used to say I should write Hallmark cards. English was my best subject in school. I received a lot of praise from my teachers. This continued in college with praise from my journalism and women’s and gender studies professors. My WGS advisor told me that I would make a difference in the world with my words. I hope she’s right.
I used to be a bookmobile librarian. Best job ever (besides children’s author)! My bookmobile picture book manuscript is currently on submission. Fingers crossed!
Today, what subject matter do you like to write about, in general?
My projects range from lyrical to humorous. One of my recent WIP is in rhyme. I never write in rhyme! I most enjoy writing character-driven picture books with heart and humor.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
It depends on the season. We live in a tiny town in Wyoming. In the winter, I get up really early to shovel our very long driveway. Then I write while my kiddos are at school. In the summer, my kids sleep in and I make them snacks all day long. LOL. On a more serious note, I’m more focused in the morning. I finally have a legit writing space. I light a candle and get to work before they wake up.
What feeds your creativity as an artist? Or helps you out of that “funk”?
Walking and hiking feed my creativity and help me get out of funks, which isn’t possible in the winter. In the winter, I drink tea and contemplate doing PiYo. I’m really going to do it this winter! A lot of kidlit authors talk about chocolate. I prefer chips. Salt and vinegar chips.
Ha! I love chips, too. But onward from chips to tips: What advice would you give other creatives?
I learned how to make dummies from Arree Chung’s Storyteller Academy. You don’t have to be an artist to make a dummy! I use stick figures. Dummies help with page turns, determining if there’s too much text on a spread, and visualizing opportunities for wordless spreads. They are
magic. I also use post-its. I write my manuscript out on post-its and place them in a well-paced picture book. This also helps with page turns, cutting words, and making sure the setup, inciting incident, climax etc. are falling at about the right places in the book.
As of today, you are a published author. What has been the pivotal moment in your writing career? “The Call ”or “The Email” or whatever moment you knew that your dreams were about to come true?
There have been a few pivotal moments. The first was getting an email from my agent, Jordan Hamessley. I submitted a LGBTQ manuscript to her on a Friday morning. She responded that afternoon, asking for more work and to set up a time to chat on the phone. I was in the library when I received her email. I wasn’t shy about happy dancing right then and there. We had “the call” the following Monday. I knew immediately she was the right agent for me.
The second pivotal moment was receiving an email from my editor. A few months had passed since I submitted to her, so I assumed it was a no. In her email, she asked if the manuscript was still available. I said YES! She said she was going to pass it along to her contracts team. Then I received a lovely offer letter from my publisher:
“Our editorial team has long been looking for the right picture book to communicate loss to small children. We are moved by the simple, sensory story of a child experiencing both the seasons of the year and changing seasons of life with their grandmother, and we think children and their families will be too. We are excited to bring the story to life and delighted to have you as part of our community of contributors. Your story fits beautifully with Barefoot Books’ mission as a publisher to open the hearts and minds of children.’
That IS lovely. And now your dream of publishing this very special book in memory of your grandmother has come true. What’s next? What do you still hope to accomplish in the future?
I have so many polished picture books, WIP picture books, and a folder full of ideas. I have also been thinking of writing MG or YA.
Good luck with your many works in progress, A.J.! As for Dance Like A Leaf, I saw that the book has already received a starred review!
Yes! From School Library Journal–such an honor! They wrote:
“This evocative pairing of story and art creates a tone poem and lesson, a lovely reflection on the season of life, and a gentle lead-in to discussion of death and renewal.”
This book is getting a lot of well-deserved ‘buzz’ out there. What specific promotional events can readers look forward to meeting you at, either virtually or otherwise?
My book launch is on Saturday, August 22 at 6 pm MST. This event will be hosted by Storyteller Academy. My friend and agency sister, Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, is going to chat with me about being a slush pile success, cows, grizzly cubs, and all sorts of other things. It’s going to be so much fun, happy hour style!
I will also be participating in The Detroit Room event “Picture Book Publishing: Six Tips from Debut Authors” with Elizabeth Bedia and Susan Novich on Tuesday, August 25 at 5 pm MST.
I have a YouTube interview scheduled with Mr. Alex’s Bookshelf.
I am also excited to be Kidlit411’s Author Spotlight in October.
Any other fun facts to share, A.J.?
My motto: Dream big! Never give up!
My furry coworkers are Bosa and Ish.
My daughter created a chalk art version of the cover of DANCE LIKE A
Where can we stay in touch with you and your work?
All over social media!
Wonderful. Thanks for sharing your book birthday with us today, A.J.! Here’s to many more!
So many live author events and book launches have been cancelled due to the current pandemic. Help A.J. Irving today by ordering her new book at any of the links below. Dance Like A Leaf is already available in both hardcover and paperback, and in English, Spanish, and French! (IndieBound helps you order directly from your local independent bookstore, which could surely use the support as well!)