Earlier this month I attended the annual summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), where I so enjoyed hearing a variety of publication success stories, especially those of debut picture book authors and illustrators like Pat Zietlow Miller and Aaron Becker. Today another debut picture book author -- Marlena Zapf -- is joining us to tell us about her own unique journey to publication. Marlena's book Underpants Dance, with exuberant illustrations by Lynne Avril, was published by Dial in April of this year. It is the story of Lily McBloom, who loves her brand-new underpants so much that she makes up a special dance to show them off. As it turns outs, she loves her underpants so much that she even takes her fancy new dance on the road -- with both hilarious and heartwarming consequences.
Congratulations on your picture book debut! Can you tell us a little bit about how Underpants Dance came to be?
Of course! When I wrote Underpants Dance and chose not to include an ending in which the protagonist “learns her lesson” in the traditional way, I knew not every editor would be jumping to publish it. So what did I do? Research -- just like SCBWI and every children’s book editor will tell you to do. And it paid off.
Here is what I did. I found out that Steve Meltzer was the Dutton editor for Walter the Farting Dog, and I figured if he likes farting dogs he might be okay with underpants, too. So I followed Dutton’s submission guidelines and sent him a query. He sent back a note asking me to email the manuscript, which I did. Then I waited…almost a whole year. Now, I’ve worked in publishing and know how busy things get. I had a good hunch that the email with my manuscript was lost for good. I also knew that Steve probably had an assistant who read all his mail. So I decided to send a hard copy with a letter politely explaining the situation. Lo and behold, the assistant did find my manuscript, and after some further editorial gymnastics, I ended up with editor Liz Waniewski at Dial and a book contract with my name on it.
Wow. That’s a great story of research and persistence paying off! If we go back in time a little further, what initially inspired you to write Underpants Dance?
I used to be a reading editor at a big school publisher. One thing you need to understand about school publishers is that they put lots of money into developing textbooks that they hope to sell all across the country. And because they need to appeal to a broad market in order to make their sales and not go bankrupt, they can’t offend anybody. So, if a state such as, oh, Texas for instance, declares it won’t acquire any textbooks that include stories about children who defy authority, well then a publisher sure as heck isn’t going to include that kind of story in its program. (Never mind that LOTS can be learned and enjoyed from stories about protagonists who misbehave and make mistakes. Luckily we have awesome librarians to direct kids to those books.) This corporate culture of self-censorship ran counter to my often contrary, somewhat rebellious, nature. And that is where the story of my story begins...
1. What if a REAL child walked into this room right now? These people wouldn’t know what to do with her (especially if she were my cousin’s three-year-old daughter, who was going through her eschewing-any-and-all-clothing phase).
2. What if I jumped up onto the conference table right now and danced in my underpants?
But neither of these things happened. What happened was that I quietly nibbled a dried-up lemon danish and nodded politely while a little girl named Lily McBloom wandered into my thoughts. And she started doing everything that the children in the textbook stories weren’t supposed to do. Then, when the meeting was over, I went back to my desk and wrote the story’s first lines.
Way to go for following your heart! What was the most exciting part of the publication process for you after that?
I guess for me it was when Underpants Dance was finally released. The publication of my first book was a LOOOOOOOOONG process. It was delayed a bunch of times. I think it took about a decade from beginning to end. I’m hoping the publication of my next books won’t take quite so long.
Speaking of your next books, do you have any projects in the works that you can tell us about? I hope they will be in print soon, too!
I’ve written more stories about Lily and Lily’s sister Marigold, but my publisher is waiting to see how Underpants Dance sells before committing to something like a series. This is how publishing works now. So, if you like Underpants Dance and want to see more of Lily, please spread the word!
I’m also working on a middle grade fantasy series inspired by a quote from Joseph Campbell: “There are no models in our mythology for an individual woman’s quest.” Actually, I believe that a new mythology is being created right now, in our time, by authors, storytellers, filmmakers, and especially girls and women themselves. That’s a party I can’t help but join.
If you’d like to hear more from Marlena, stay tuned for Part II of our interview. Next week we’ll be chatting about Marlena's background in movement and how she’ll be incorporating it into her author visits for Underpants Dance!