How to Grow a Dinosaur – An Interview with Author Jill Esbaum

HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR
Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Mike Boldt
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99; Ages 2-5)

Cover illustration from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum

 

If you’re looking for a gift for a child who is about to become an older sibling, look no further than Jill Esbaum’s hilarious and practical guide to big siblinghood, HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR with artwork by Mike Boldt. Here’s a description from Penguin Random House:

Good news: Your mom’s hatching a baby! Bad news: Babies take their sweet time. And when the baby finally hatches? He’s too little to play! He mostly screeches, eats, burps, sleeps, and poops. He doesn’t even know he’s a dinosaur! That’s where you come in. You can teach the baby just about everything–from peek-a-boo to roaring to table manners to bedtime. Growing a dinosaur is a big job, but you’re perfect for it. Why? Because one thing your baby brother wants more than anything . . . is to be just like you.

INTERVIEW: I was lucky enough to sit down for a chat (via Facebook Messenger) with Jill to talk about the book, finding time to write, and the perks of being a kidlit author.

Colleen Paeff: I love the way HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR is playful and funny, but it’s also a legitimate how-to guide for older siblings. Did the manuscript start out that way or did it evolve over time?

Jill Esbaum: Thanks, Colleen! That evolved over time. I wrote it to be a simple, entertaining book, but it sort of took on a life of its own. My editor grabbed onto the possibilities right away.

CP: Did you send it to your agent first or did it go straight to your editor?

JE: I sent it to my agent, Tricia Lawrence. I had my Dial editor, Jessica Dandino Garrison, in mind, though, and asked Tricia to send it to her first. It seemed like the kind of goofy humor she might like.

CP: So, you had worked with this editor before?

JE: Yes. We had worked together on both I HATCHED and I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!

CP: Is it easier to work on something with an editor you’ve worked with before?

JE: Definitely, because you (sorta) know what might work for her/him and what probably
won’t.

interior artwork from How to Grow a Dinosaur

Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

CP: How long was the process from first draft to publication for HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR?

JE: I sent it to Tricia in May of 2015, and by October we had an offer. The process didn’t really start until March, when the contract was finally buttoned up. So March, 2016, to January, 2018. Not bad.

CP: Is that faster than usual? Or is that normal for you?

JE: That was about the same as my other recent books. I once waited nearly 5 years, though, so 2 years felt like lightning speed. My last 5 (or so) books have all been about 2 to 2 and a half years from sale to publication.

CP: Wow. That seems fast!

JE: Still seems fast to me, too. My earlier books were mostly 3-year books.

CP: I’m curious about the ratio of stories you write to stories you sell. Do you have many manuscripts in the proverbial “drawer” or do you sell most of what you write?

JE: That’s hard to say right now. My agent has 6-7 picture book manuscripts that started to make the rounds last year. Considering my entire career, though, I suppose I sell…50% of what I write? That’s probably just because I refuse to give up on some that deserve the drawer. I can’t help tinkering with rejected stories in hopes of making them irresistible the next time out. That persistence has often paid off for me. An offer came in last month for a picture book that had been rejected 7-8 times since I wrote it in 2014.

CP: Do you usually work on one project at a time or several?

JE: Several. Right now, I have a chapter book, 3 picture book manuscripts, and a nonfiction project all front and center on my computer desktop.

interior artwork from How to Grow a Dinosaur

Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

CP: Are you someone who writes every day or do you have a more flexible schedule? And how do you squeeze it in around farm work, grandchildren, school visits, and teaching a summer writing workshop?!

JE: I don’t feel like I’ve been doing a very good job of it lately, honestly. Working on that. But I can’t always make writing my priority. Family comes first, always. One thing that has also been squeezing out writing time lately is handling the business side of being published. I don’t love it, and it’s a huge time suck. Long, leisurely days of “Hmm, what should I work on first?” are VERY few and far between, these days.

CP: But it seems like you’re so prolific!

JE: I don’t feel that way. I always feel like I should be writing more. For instance, I wrote a quick draft of a new picture book and sent it to my online critique group about 10 days ago. They’ve all weighed in, and I’m chomping at the bit to start tweaking. But I haven’t yet been able to make the time. Part of that is because I have a new book out and am doing my best to promote it, including my first-ever launch party this next weekend. Partly it’s because the flu sidelined a grandson’s babysitter, so I stepped in there. Grammy duty is one of the best parts of my life!

CP: Is hanging out with your grandkids a big source of inspiration for you?

JE: It is! And I hadn’t really expected that. My fingers are tightly crossed for a project going to its final yes/no meeting next month that springs entirely from a moment I experienced while babysitting my granddaughter. Crazy.

CP: I know you write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a soft spot for one over the other?

JE: I suppose I have a soft spot for fiction, but only because that comes entirely from my own imagination, and it’s a blast to see that come to life. I love writing nonfiction, too, because all the information I need is easily available to me, and all I have to do is figure out a way to make it engaging for kiddos.

CP: Let’s get back to HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR. I love the parts in the story where the text is vague, but the illustrations show something alarming, or moving, or downright hilarious. Did your manuscript go to the illustrator with art notes or was that all him?

JE: I did include brief art notes here and there. But much of it was left for the illustrator’s imagination. I don’t think I had an art note for the page in which the baby dino is teething on the cat. And that turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations.

CP: Yes! I love that one. And I love the one where the big brother roars and scares the baby. They both look so sad.

JE: I feel very fortunate that both Jessica and the illustrator, Mike Boldt, understood what I was trying to do.

 

How to Grow a Dinosaur interior spread

Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

CP: Do you have a favorite unexpected detail?

JE: My favorited unexpected detail is that Mike inserted picture books here and there with titles that are plays on books of his or mine. There’s I Don’t Want To Be a Stegosaurus (from his book with Dev Petty, I Don’t Want To Be a Frog); I Hatched; and I Am T. Rex, Hear Me Roar! (from my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) Too funny. Illustrators are brilliant.

CP: Yes! I love those, too. And I love how all the illustrations in the books are dinosaurs. It’s so clever. Did you see any artwork while it was in process or did you have to wait until it was complete?

JE: I did get to see the black and white sketches. It was obvious even then that this one would be special.

CP: Do you sometimes feel a sense of trepidation when you give up your manuscript to an illustrator?

JE: No, I never feel that way. I’m always excited to see what they bring to the story. Seeing their sketches feels like unwrapping a gift.

CP: What’s next for you?

JE: I have a couple of nonfiction books coming out in March. Picture book-wise, two projects are in the pipeline that I can’t yet talk about. And my fingers are tightly crossed for a third. Meanwhile, I’ll be writing whenever I can squeeze it in. Enough of that, and projects eventually get finished.

CP: What do you wish you’d known when you first started writing for children?

JE: I don’t think there’s anything I can say I wish I’d known. Getting to this point in my career has been one long, slow learning process, of course. But I can’t wish I’d had shortcuts, because everything that’s happened has made me a stronger writer.

CP: That’s good to know!

JE: The BEST thing that’s happened in the past 20 years: If anybody had told me, early on, that in 20 years I’d have this many amazing and talented author/illustrator friends all over the globe I would have thought that person was nuts. I mean, I live in Iowa; how would I meet them? Ha. Enter the internet. And SCBWI conferences and literature festivals. Meeting so many terrific book people has been one of the highlights of my life.

CP: It’s definitely one of the perks of this business. Thanks so much for doing this, Jill!

JE: Thanks, Colleen! I enjoyed it.

  • Interview by Colleen Paeff

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Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted Birdie Friends! by Jill Esbaum

ELWOOD BIGFOOT: WANTED BIRDIE FRIENDS!
Written by Jill Esbaum 
Illustrated by Nate Wragg
(Sterling Children’s Books; $14.95, Ages 4-7)

ElwoodBigfootcvr

In Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted Birdie Friends! all Elwood Bigfoot wants is a friend – preferably a feathered, flittery bird friend! But his earnestly clumsy bigfoot-y manner gets in his way time after time. How can a lonely, large, LOUD Bigfoot get close to his avian amigos-to-be?

Elwood tries the direct approach first, chasing after swooping birds and hollering for the birdies to come back. Alas, they only fly away. His next idea is to live in a tree, where he can be closer to the birds. His dedicated handiwork produces a lovely, log cabin style tree house perched against the mountainside. Surely his new neighbors, the birds, will welcome him.

elwood---sample-spread1

Reprinted with permission from Elwood Bigfoot © 2015 by Jill Esbaum, Sterling Children’s Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Illustrations by Nate Wragg.

Alas, the birds seem shy. So Elwood tries to disguise himself, dressing like a bird from head to toe with feathers, beak and feet. Experiencing a modicum of success, Elwood thinks he’s finally about to break the barriers to feathered friendship. He shouts for joy! Alas (once again!) the birdies fly away.

Esbaum’s charming, lyrical text is delightful to read aloud and incorporates intriguing, playful vocabulary. She perfectly captures Elwood’s sense of loneliness in ways that a child can easily connect to, and she conveys his upbeat, hopeful and innovative spirit in appealing ways. While readers see that making friends is not always easy, learning to take the perspective of others is an essential part of the process.

Wragg’s illustrations turn Elwood into a marvelous, huggable furball. With a jaunty fedora and sarfari-style binoculars, Elwood is well-equipped for his bird-watching exploits. A single triangular fang and four-fingered, three toed shagginess add to Elwood’s monstrous appeal. Wragg also turns out an impressive flock of feathered friends throughout the pages, and displays them prominently on the book’s endpages. Whimsical and colorful, the birds’ tiny round eyes and pointy beaks reveal an impressive range of tender and comical emotions.

Elwood Bigfoot : Wanted Birdie Friends! is a sweet tale of patience, persistence and friendship. Young readers may look hard at the birds in the yards and trees around them, wondering if they are among Elwood’s best buddies. Don’t miss this encouraging story about dreams that do come true.

A downloadable activity kit is available here.

  • Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey

 

Where Obtained:  I reviewed a copy of Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted Birdie Friends! from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

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