It’s that time again. . .
Time to meet another amazing Tuesday Debut-ess!
I’m thrilled to introduce you to Melanie Ellsworth and share a glimpse of her journey to publication with this delightfully lively and fun-looking picture book due out on February 23 (so pre-order your copy now! 😊)
Are you ready?
Hip, hip, Beret! 😊
written by Melanie Ellsworth
illustrated by Morena Forza
Fiction Picture Book for ages 4-7
HMH Books for Young Readers
February 23, 2021
Bella’s beret blows away on a windy day, taking a ride through the seasons and landing on a variety of heads along the way. Full of rhyme, repetition, and humorous word play, with a few touchable berets to engage young readers.
SUSANNA: Welcome, Melanie! Thank you so much for joining us! We are so looking forward to hearing Hip, Hip…Beret!’s birthday story 😊 Where did the idea for this book come from?
MELANIE: Thanks so much for having me on your blog today, Susanna. I’m thrilled to be here!
I often play around with common sayings, idioms, or nursery rhyme phrases and see what happens if I change a word or two. I remember playing around with the phrase, “Hip, hip hooray!” to see what would happen if I changed the last word. One of my early ideas was “Hip, hip moray!” a non-fiction picture book about moray eels. (It’s probably best I didn’t follow that idea too far…) Fortunately, it didn’t take long from there to get to “Hip, hip…beret!” and imagine where a beret might travel on a windy day.
SUSANNA: How long did it take you to write this book?
MELANIE: I wrote the first draft in one sitting once I hit upon the structure of the book, and I revised over the next month and a half while also working on other projects. Unlike a number of my ideas, which sit around in a Word doc on my computer for months or years before I write them, I was eager to write a first draft for HIP, HIP…BERET! as soon as I got the idea. It seemed like tons of fun to write, and it was. Rhymezone.com was my best friend on this journey as I needed many words that rhymed with “hooray” for the repeating phrase!
SUSANNA: Did you go through many revisions?
MELANIE: I wrote eight drafts of this story, sharing with my critique groups along the way, before sending this off to an editor. For many of my books, I write twenty or thirty drafts, so writing HIP, HIP…BERET! went much more quickly than usual for me. (Thank goodness! We could all use one like this from time to time!)
Because I established the simple structure of the story quickly, the various drafts don’t reflect major differences from the first to the eighth – just minor word tweaking. It was one of those rare stories that came to mind almost fully formed, although early on in the brainstorming process, I tried a few rhyming stanzas like this:
A beret sails away
One very windy day
Frog tries it on
And flings it to a fawn
I did like the idea of the beret passing from one head to another, but I threw out that stanza pattern and went with a structure that involved the repetition of “Hip, Hip…” followed by various words like “soufflé” and “ballet.” (Turns out a lot of French words rhyme with “hooray!”) That simplified structure fit better with the story I was telling and also allowed readers/listeners to predict the next rhyming word. I wanted the tone to be lightweight and breezy like the wind carrying the beret.
SUSANNA: When did you know your manuscript was ready for submission?
MELANIE: By the eighth draft, I had done all the wordsmithing I could do, and my critique group members thought it was ready. One of them suggested I submit HIP, HIP…BERET! to an editor who was already considering another one of my manuscripts because it seemed like a good companion to that book. That turned out to be a great idea because the editor ended up acquiring both books! Thank goodness for critique groups who often give you the push you need at the right time!
SUSANNA: When and how did you submit?
MELANIE: For HIP, HIP…BERET! I had a connection with an editor I had met at the Agents/Editors/Writers conference in Belgrade Lakes, Maine. She was considering a different manuscript of mine from that conference, and I asked if she would be interested in this one as well. She said yes, so I sent HIP, HIP…BERET! along to her in May of 2018.
SUSANNA: How long after you found out about your book going to acquisitions (if you did) or after you submitted did you get your offer?
MELANIE: I emailed HIP, HIP…BERET to the editor in May and received an offer on August 13th, so it was about three months from submission to offer for that one. (My other book being considered by the same editor around that time, CLARINET AND TRUMPET, took a lot longer – with an initial submission of November 7th, a revise/resubmit request, and an offer seven months later in June. )
SUSANNA: When did you get “the call”? (Best moment ever! 😊)
MELANIE: In June, I heard back from the editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt by email with an offer on my other manuscript (CLARINET AND TRUMPET). At that point, I reached out to a few of the agents on my list and ended up signing with Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis. She negotiated the contract for CLARINET AND TRUMPET with my editor. Then in August, I had an offer on HIP, HIP…BERET! from the same editor, and Christa negotiated that contract as well. It was definitely a joyful summer for me! The two books were originally scheduled to come out about 6 months apart, but due to the pandemic, CLARINET AND TRUMPET was pushed from 2020 to 2021, so now the two books are practically twins, due out in February and March of 2021. (I imagine HIP, HIP…BERET! elbowing CLARINET AND TRUMPET out of the way so it could come out first!)
SUSANNA: How long was it between getting your offer and getting your contract to sign?
MELANIE: I got the offer for HIP, HIP…BERET on August 13, 2018 and had the contract (which my agent negotiated) two months later on October 4th.
SUSANNA: How did you celebrate signing your contract?
MELANIE: I remember letting my critique groups know first thing – they did some happy dances with me over email/phone. My husband suggested I frame the first advance check that I got, so I did, and it’s hanging on my office wall. I was especially excited to share the news with my daughter; she had been watching my picture book writing journey since she was a little picture book reader herself, and even though she was moving into chapter books and early middle grade by then, she was still thrilled for her mom. (Plus, no one is ever too old for picture books!)
SUSANNA: That is so true! Picture books are for everyone! Was the contract what you expected in terms of advance, royalty percentage, publication timeline, author copies etc.?
MELANIE: My contract was fairly typical, with an advance in the 3-6K range, and the standard royalties, and 20 author copies. I thought the initial advance offer was generous for a debut author, and my agent was able to increase it even more.
SUSANNA: Can you tell us a little about the editorial process?
MELANIE: It was fun to work on revisions with my editor; I’m one of those writers who (most of the time) loves the editing process. I think we went back and forth with a few changes here and there about five times before we had a final version. Most of it was small word changes, but there were some larger stanza changes as well. I had a stanza featuring an old oak tree that we ended up replacing with a ballet scene which was more dynamic. I originally had a hawk swooping down to grab the beret – “hip, hip…my prey!” and I really didn’t want to cut that scene at first, but the editor convinced me that it darkened the tone of an otherwise lighthearted book. We replaced it with a balloon carrying the beret skywards until the balloon pops. Morena Forza, the illustrator, also played a role in some text changes; she felt like the donkey stanza would result in illustrations too similar to the horse stanza, so the donkey hit the cutting room floor (Hip, hip…br-aaay!!). We made the ending a bit brighter as well, with the beret almost sprouting from the ground as the spring flowers emerge. In retrospect, it’s surprising how many revisions you can make on a story that is less than 300 words long! But every word is gold and needs to shine.
SUSANNA: What was your experience of the illustration process like?
MELANIE: I didn’t have much to do with the illustrations, as publishers wisely like to give illustrators freedom to explore their own vision. I had very few art notes in my initial submission, except one for a plot point at the end that wasn’t clear in the text and one at the beginning suggesting that the illustrations show Bella looking for her missing beret throughout the story. As it turned out, the illustrator and design team disregarded that note because they felt that having Bella searching in each spread, even as an inset, would make the spreads too busy. I had also suggested that Bella not be white, feeling like more of our young readers need to see themselves reflected in text and/or illustration, but they made a different decision on that. But there is diversity reflected in other characters in the book.
My editor thought that it would be fun to have a few touchable, felt berets throughout the book, and I think children will enjoy the search for those. I got to see the art early on in the process in case I wanted to make comments, and I was happy to let Morena (and the art department) pursue their vision. As I sit here holding an author copy in my hand, I’m thinking that the vivid color and whimsy that Morena brings to the illustrations perfectly matches the tone of the text, and I love her work.
SUSANNA: Did you get to see advance reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, etc.? What was that like?
MELANIE: I haven’t seen reviews yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed!
SUSANNA: How long did it take from offer to having the first copy in your hand?
MELANIE: Let’s see – offer on August 2018 and first copy in hand January 22, 2021! So about two and ½ years.
SUSANNA: What kind of marketing and promotion has your publisher done for this book?
MELANIE: My editor shared HMH’s 50-page marketing guidelines PDF which helps authors with social media promotion. Other publishers might have something similar – for writers debuting, it’s worth reaching out to your editor or publicist to ask. My editor suggested I pass marketing questions by her, but some editors prefer that an author work directly with their assigned publicist. I asked about doing book giveaways, and they offered to do an Instagram giveaway. When I inquired, my editor also said they are willing to send books to winners (living in the U.S.) of my blog tour giveaways, so it’s helpful that I don’t have to use all of my author copies for that. The publisher has also reached out to their usual sources for reviews of my books. As a debut author, I have been reluctant to ask tons of marketing questions – not wanting to be a major pest! – but I do think it helps to be as proactive as possible in promoting your work. Ultimately, that will benefit the publisher as well. And being part of a debut book group is very helpful – I’m part of the Soaring ‘20s Picture Book Debut Group (https://www.soaring20spb.com/) – because you can get a lot of marketing questions answered by folks who have debuted before you, and they can help you figure out what you need to ask your publisher.
SUSANNA: Describe any marketing/promotion you did for this book.
MELANIE: I’ve arranged for a number of blog tours, particularly on blogs that I’ve been following regularly – like this one! – for years. I’ve also participated on Matthew Winner’s The Children’s Book Podcast (and soon on KidLit TV) with my Soaring ‘20s debut group. It has been helpful for our group to promote and review each other’s books and provide useful content to other writers. I’ve also set up a library event with my local library, offering signed/personalized books through my local bookstore. For both of my books, the illustrators have agreed to be part of Zoom book events, which is wonderful (especially since Morena Forza lives in Italy – quite the time difference!). A website seems like a must for authors/illustrators, and you can certainly create one for yourself if you are willing to put in a lot of time. I started down that route for a while before realizing I was better off putting my website into more capable hands. 😊
SUSANNA: How long was it between the time you started writing seriously and the time you sold your first picture book?
MELANIE: About 6 years. I started writing and joined a critique group in 2012 and sold my first picture book in 2018.
SUSANNA: Anything else you’d like to share about your book’s journey from inspiration to publication?
MELANIE: It can get a little stressful as you approach your debut date and think about all the marketing you still need to do, but I’d advise anyone debuting to be sure to also have fun and enjoy the crazy journey! And for writers who aren’t sure if they’ll ever get that first book out there, keep the faith. You have your own stories to tell, and the world needs them.
Thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this series and paying it forward to other writers, Melanie! We are so grateful to you for sharing your time and expertise, and wish you all the best with this and future titles!
Readers, if you have questions for Melanie, please post them in the comments below and if she has time I’m sure she’ll respond!
You may purchase Melanie’s book at:
(all links below are book-specific)
We can help our debut authors successfully launch their careers by:
– purchasing their books
– recommending their books to friends and family
– recommending their books to our children’s teachers and librarians
– recommending their books to our local libraries and bookstores
– suggesting them as visiting authors at our children’s schools and our local libraries
– sharing their books on social media
Thank you all for stopping by to read today! Have a lovely, inspiration-filled Tuesday! Maybe today is the day you’ll write your debut picture book 😊
Missed any previous Tuesday Debuts? Check them out!
Karen Kiefer – Drawing God (religious market)
Theresa Kiser – A Little Catholic’s Book Of Liturgical Colors (religious market)
Lindsey Hobson – Blossom’s Wish (self pub)
Julie Rowan-Zoch – Louis (picture book illustration debut!)