Hello, my friends!
I hope you’re all well and enjoying everything summer has to offer!
It’s been quite a while since we had a Tuesday Debut, but, HURRAY! We have one today!
I’m thrilled to introduce Rebecca Gardyn Levington, a graduate of Making Picture Book Magic and a frequent participant in the writing contests on this blog over the years, here today with her debut picture book, BRAINSTORM!, which I just love the whole concept of and I think you will, too!
Author: Rebecca Gardyn Levington
Illustrator: Kate Kronreif
Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press
Date of publication: August 3, 2022
Fiction, Age 4-8
SUSANNA: Welcome, Rebecca! Thank you so much for joining us today! We can’t wait to hear all about how Brainstorm! came to be! Where did the idea for this book come from?
REBECCA: First of all, Susanna, Thank YOU so much for having me on the Tuesday Debut! I have been following this blog for YEARS and it’s such an honor to share my story with you and your readers. Thank you for all you do to help inspire and encourage us!
As for where the idea for BRAINSTORM! came from….One rainy late October day in 2019, much like the little girl in my story, I had a terrible case of writer’s block. I was doing my best to keep my Butt In Chair, but my brain felt like the weather — cloudy, gloomy and gray. Instead of staring at the blank page, I found myself staring at the rain outside my window when I felt the drop of an idea…
What if…IDEAS poured down from the sky?… Like a…rain storm?…No! Wait! Like a….
I immediately began writing what I originally thought would remain a short little poem.
SUSANNA: How long did it take you to write this book?
REBECCA: It honestly didn’t take long. Once I had the idea, the main core of the poem just poured out of me (pun intended!) It took a few more months of tinkering before it became a “real” picture book draft.
SUSANNA: Did you go through many revisions?
REBECCA: As I said, BRAINSTORM! began as a poem. A pretty short poem– Just six couplets. I really thought that’s all it would be. It sat on my computer for a couple of months, but it kept calling to me, so I began tinkering. I wondered: what if it wasn’t just IDEAS that fell from the sky, but WORDS, like VERBS and NOUNS, and PHRASES and SENTENCES and CHARACTERS and PLOTS…. Suddenly, I found myself deluged in this amazing world where stories drizzled down and swirled all around us. I loved watching my MC play in the puddles! In the end, I saved 15 drafts of this story, so it definitely changed and grew over the months, but those initial six couplets (with some minor tweaks) are all still in the final version.
SUSANNA: When did you know your manuscript was ready for submission?
REBECCA: I have several critique groups and partners. I generally send a manuscript to one group at time, make changes, then send it to the next group and repeat. Once all my critique partners had seen it and no one had any major changes or suggestions, I felt it was ready.
SUSANNA: When and how did you submit?
REBECCA: In summer 2019, Lori Degman chose me as one of her three #PBChat Mentees. Lori is an all-around amazing person (now good friend) and at the end of the 3-month-long mentorship she very generously offered to ask a few of the editors with whom she’d worked if they’d be willing to look at a submission from me. One of those editors was Sarah Rockett at Sleeping Bear Press.
So, in December, with Lori’s blessing and encouragement, I sent off my favorite manuscript at the time (not this one). Sarah ultimately passed, but said: “It’s really well done and I love your writing and rhythm…if you have anything else that is submission-ready, please feel free to send it my way.” I immediately sent her two more manuscripts (not this one) and heard NOTHING for months. Meanwhile, I had just polished up BRAINSTORM! and felt it was pretty strong. I wasn’t sure if I should send her a third manuscript, but I wasn’t agented at the time so my opportunities to submit were few and far between. I knew Sarah liked my writing, so I said “what the heck?!”
On March 6, 2020 (yup, just one week before we all went into quarantine!) I sent her an email, following up on the two previous manuscripts I’d sent and added, “Oh, by the way, I also have this new one called BRAINSTORM!…” I attached it. And waited.
SUSANNA: How long after you found out about your book going to acquisitions (if you did) or after you submitted were you told it was a “yes”?
REBECCA: So, as I mentioned, I sent BRAINSTORM! to Sleeping Bear in March 2020, just a week before the world shut down, so I didn’t expect to hear back for a while…and I didn’t. Two months later, in May, I followed up again and Sarah kindly responded that, thanks to the quarantine, Sleeping Bear had fallen behind with everything. However, she did chat with her editorial team and they were, unfortunately, passing on the two other manuscripts I’d sent. (whomp. whomp). BUT, she added, she loved BRAINSTORM! and wanted to bring it to their next acquisitions meeting. (WHOOHOO!)
Thanks to the ongoing pandemic — yada, yada, yada — that meeting didn’t happen until August and then finally, on August 27, 2020, I got the email that Sleeping Bear wanted to acquire it for their 2022 list! (So, to answer your question, it was about 6 months after submission, and 3 months after being told it was going to acquisitions, before I got the official “yes”!)
SUSANNA: When did you get “the call”, which these days is more likely to be “the email”? (Best moment ever! ☺)
REBECCA: Oops, sorry. I think I answered this in the previous question! I got the email on August 27, 2020! I remember standing in my kitchen with my phone in my hand and I just went mute and started shaking. My kids were at the table, obliviously eating lunch, and I think my husband asked me something, but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t stop staring at the email! Finally, one of my kids asked: “Mom, are you okay?” And I told them the news! I just couldn’t believe one of my stories was FINALLY going to be a book!
SUSANNA: Such an amazing feeling! How long was it between getting your offer and getting your contract to sign?
REBECCA: Exactly one month. I was at a Highlights retreat with one of my critique buddies, Kelly Conroy, and I had been complaining all weekend how long it was taking for them to send the contract. Turns out, it had been sitting in my SPAM folder for an entire day! Since I was unagented at the time, I hired a lawyer to help me look through it. After a very brief negotiation, I received my final executed contract another month later, at the end of October. It seemed like it took forever to get the contract, but now that I’ve sold more books, I realize that two months from offer to executed contract is actually LIGHTNING FAST!
SUSANNA: How did you celebrate signing your contract?
REBECCA: I don’t remember celebrating signing the contract. I think by the time I’d signed it, I had already finished off all the champagne! 😊
SUSANNA: Was the contract what you expected in terms of advance, royalty percentage, publication timeline, author copies etc.?
REBECCA: My advance was lower than I’d expected, but because this was my first sale and because I didn’t have an agent at the time (and because I HATE confrontation) I was terrified of pushing back. The only thing I asked for was more author copies and a few changes to some of the wording. There was a part of me that believed that if I asked for too much the publisher would change their mind about the offer. Now that I’ve sold more books, I realize that was ridiculous. By the time you receive an offer, it has had to jump through SO many hoops that the publisher isn’t about to say “Oh, never mind then” if you respectfully ask for a little more. Publishers EXPECT to negotiate. I’ve learned now that it never hurts to ask. The absolutely WORST that will happen is that they will say “no” to that specific term. Since signing this contract, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with negotiation. (Although I definitely prefer having my agent do it for me!)
Oh, and one quick thing about royalties that may be helpful. I didn’t know this at the time, but some publishers pay royalties based upon the “suggested retail price” of the book and others pay based upon “net receipts,” so read your contract carefully! A 5% royalty is standard but ONLY if it’s based on “suggested retail price.” If you are getting royalties based on “net receipts” you want to be sure your royalties are much higher, or around 10%. Also, if you are unagented, I HIGHLY recommend all the incredible information available for FREE at The Author’s Guild. They have a “model contract” you can look at that is extremely helpful for understanding what is “normal” and what is a “red flag:” https://www.authorsguild.org/member-services/legal-services/model-book-contract/
SUSANNA: Can you tell us a little about the editorial process?
REBECCA: Amazingly, there were very, very few changes to my original text. I think the biggest edit was changing the word “boots” to “shoes” because we weren’t sure what type of footwear the illustrator would choose for the MC. Ultimately Kate did end up having the MC wear boots, so we changed it back! There might have been another word or two that changed, but that was all.
SUSANNA: What was your experience of the illustration process like?
REBECCA: I was thrilled when I heard that Kate Kronreif would be illustrating! I was sent initial character sketches for review and my editor, Sarah, and I had a Zoom call to discuss the initial black and white sketches, as well as the color sketches once they were available. Sarah asked for my feedback on the cover as well. I felt very included in the process and that my opinion mattered, and Sarah was always open and willing to answer all my questions along the way. Now that I see the final product, I realize how difficult this story must’ve been to illustrate! I mean, how does someone illustrate “An easy breeze becomes a blast/of funny phrases flying past?” Thank goodness both Sarah and Kate totally understood my vision and took it to the next level!
I didn’t include any art notes in this manuscript, but I had a few ideas in my head about how I thought an illustrator might interpret this story. For instance, I was imagining a sort of “Wizard of Oz” scenario – where things started off super gloomy and gray and ended up in a whirlwind of color. So, I was a little surprised initially when I saw all the color Kate put into the book from the very first spread. BUT, it is PERFECT! And I absolutely LOVE everything she did and now I can’t imagine it any other way! The book is vibrant, exciting and playful, which is exact want kids to feel when they are stomping around in their idea puddles! The only part of the illustration process that I was directly involved with was, at Sarah’s request, providing Kate with lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, titles, sentences, “funny phrases,” “wacky plots,” etc. that she could use as inspiration and to weave throughout the illustrations.
SUSANNA: Did you get to see advance reviews from Kirkus, SLJ, etc? What was that like?
REBECCA: Yes! I received a Kirkus review — and it’s a good one! You can read the full review here: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/rebecca-gardyn-levington/brainstorm-levington/ and here’s the condensed blurb:
“…The metaphor nicely captures the creative process—from the frustration of waiting for inspiration to the anticipation of something gathering in the distance to the sought-after deluge of ideas […] Entertaining reassurance and lighthearted encouragement for those tough first moments of putting pencil to paper.”
SUSANNA: How long did it take from offer to having the first copy in your hand?
REBECCA: I still haven’t received my author copies! Unfortunately, due to supply chain issues, my book birthday was bumped from July 15th to August 3rd! I was told I’ll be getting my copies at the same time as everyone else, so if that’s true, it will be almost exactly 2 years from book offer book in hand!
SUSANNA: What kind of marketing and promotion has your publisher done for this book?
REBECCA: My publisher sent a digital F&G of the book to all the major advanced reviewers and put it up on Edelweiss. They also organized a pre-order campaign with a local bookstore and designed a bookmark for me to use, as well as activity sheets and a teacher’s guide. They also created an adorable trailer that they posted on social media. I also discovered that the Association of School Librarians in my state (NJ) is holding a conference in December and they agreed to cover a good portion of my costs to attend.
SUSANNA: Describe any marketing/promotion you did for this book.
REBECCA: I reached out to a bunch of podcasters and bloggers (like you!) about a year in advance to set up my #BrainstormBlogTour (I realize now, I started a bit too early – I probably only needed to start about 3-ish months in advance!) Once I received the digital review copy, I sent it to fellow authors to post early reviews on GoodReads and Barnes & Noble (Amazon doesn’t allow reviews to be posted until the release date). I also applied to have a table at several in-person book festivals in my area this fall, and I have been hosting giveaways on social media.
In addition, I hired a professional web designer to re-vamp my website, RebeccaGardynLevington.com. I used Jenny Medford at WebsyDaisy and she did an INCREDIBLE job. I can’t recommend her enough.
Lastly, I am part of a wonderful debut group called KidLit Caravan (www.kidlitcaravan.com). We are 13 picture book authors and author/illustrators who support each other’s journey, promoting cover reveals, pre-order announcements, and book birthdays/launches on social media. We review each other’s books and request that our local libraries order them. One of our members, Carrie Tillotson (author of the adorable Counting To Bananas), is a whiz when it comes to graphic design and I hired her to create a “sell sheet” for BRAINSTORM! that I could take with me to bookstores and libraries when I introduce myself so that they can have all the relevant information at hand and (hopefully!) place an order for the book.
SUSANNA: How long was it between the time you started writing seriously and the time you sold your first picture book?
REBECCA: About four years. In my life B.C. (“Before Kids”) I was a magazine editor and then a freelance journalist so I’d already had hundreds of articles published in various magazines and newspapers. I stopped writing once I started having kids but, after almost a decade of full time Mommy-ing, I realized how much I missed playing with words. I discovered SCBWI and attended my first regional NJ conference in the summer of 2016. I was blown away. I finally felt at home. I knew writing picture books and poems for kids was what I was meant to do.
SUSANNA: What is the most important/helpful thing you learned on your way to publication? (Or what is your most helpful piece of advice for up and coming writers?)
REBECCA: Two things:
1) Put yourself and your work out into the world as much as you can. Enter ALL the contests (Like Susanna’s amazing Halloweensie, Valentiny, and Holiday contests, Vivian Kirkfield’s #50PreciousWords, Madness!Poetry, etc.), enter ALL the mentorships (like the #PBChat Mentorship Program), do ALL the Twitter parties (like #PBPitch, #PitMad and #PBParty), go to as many conferences and webinars as you can and join ALL the groups. Take advantage of professional critiques, if possible. If you don’t have an agent and have an opportunity to send your work to an editor, DO IT! (I sold my second book to HarperCollins via a submission opportunity after a conference and that helped me land my agent as well!). Be as active as you can in the KidLit community and always, ALWAYS be kind, respectful and supportive. The connections you make along the way will lead you to opportunities you can’t even imagine!
2) While you should, of course, write stories that come from your heart, it is crucial to remember that children’s book publishing is a BUSINESS. An editor may think your story is “cute” or “funny” or “heartfelt,” but before she can acquire it, she has to prove to all the financial and marketing people that your story will SELL. So you MUST think about “hooks.” Who is buying your book and WHY? Can your book be sold during a holiday? Can teachers use your book in a classroom (if so, consider adding back matter!). Does it have social-emotional themes that make it easy to explain a difficult subject matter? Etc. One thing I always do now is, once I’ve created my first draft, I stop everything, write my pitch and logline and research comp titles. As I continue to revise, I have a very clear idea of what the book is really about, what the hooks are, and how I will sell the idea to an editor.
SUSANNA: Anything else you’d like to share about your book’s journey from inspiration to publication?
REBECCA: So, this may sound completely counterintuitive to what I just said about “hooks” and marketability, BUT… When you have an idea that you feel you need to write about, do not pass go, do not collect $200, just GO WITH IT! Don’t stop to think too hard about marketability and hooks (yet!). Write what is in your heart. Get it down. BRAINSTORM! came to me in what felt like a rush of creativity. I couldn’t stop it. I had to write it! At the time I didn’t think at all about marketability. I was just having fun writing a poem. It wasn’t until after that I went back and said: “You know…I think if I add more of X,Y,Z, I bet teachers could use this in their classrooms….” Once I realized that not only was this a FUN book for kids to read, but that it also had an educational “hook,” I knew I was on to something.
SUSANNA: Thank you so much for joining us today, Rebecca, and for sharing your journey and answering our questions and giving us so much to think about! We so appreciate it! I know I speak for everyone when I wish you the best of luck with this and future titles!
Readers, if you have questions for Rebecca, please post them in the comments below and if she has time I’m sure she’ll respond!
To pre-order a personalized signed copy of BRAINSTORM!, visit Rebecca’s local indie: https://store.wordsbookstore.com/preorder-signed-copy-brainstorm
You may also purchase Rebecca’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!)
Gnome Road Publishing (publishing house debut)
Julie Rowan-Zoch – I’m A Hare So There (author/illustrator debut)
Nancy Derey Riley – Curiosity’s Discovery (author/illustrator self-published debut)
Kate Allen Fox – Pando: A Living Wonder Of Trees (nonfiction)
Rebecca Mullin – One Tomato (board book)
Cynthia Argentine – Night Becomes Day: Changes In Nature (illustrated with photographs)
Anne Appert – Blob (author/illustrator)
Karen Condit – Turtle On The Track (hybrid publishing)
Renee LaTulippe – The Crab Ballet (picture book poem)
Amy Duchene – Pool Party (collaboration/co-writing)