Jordan Hamessley London, featuring J. Press and Michael Kline.
I always love hearing stories about books or series that were “slush pile gems” and went on to be acquired by the editor. Recently, my imprint published the first two books in The Doodles of Sam Dibble chapter book series. In addition to being hilarious, the series has the awesome honor of having been a slush pile success story.
Here is what the acquiring editor, Bonnie Bader, had to say about finding The Doodles of Sam Dibble:
What are the odds of acquiring an unsolicited manuscript (with artwork included)? Pretty slim, I think. But when The Doodles of Sam Dibble landed on my desk, my interest was piqued.
What did I find?
I found a laugh-out-loud story, by J. Press about third grader Sam Dibble, who can wiggle his ears, win burping contests, ride his bike with no hands, make underarm farts, and eat live worms without throwing up. But what he likes to do best is doodle.
I fell in love with Sam’s voice and also with his doodles. Michael Kline’s art is just as hilarious as the writing. Plus the doodles look as though they were drawn by a third grader. (Here’s a secret: right-handed Michael used his left hand to create the doodles.)
I was sold, and convinced that this manuscript would make a great first book in a series of transitional chapter books. And so The Doodles of Sam Dibble was born!
What a fantastic story! I had to get the inside scoop from creators J. Press and Michael Kline on their journey.
1) Where did the idea for Sam Dibble come from?
Judy: When I was three years old my mom got me a box of crayons. They tasted great. For my fourth birthday I decorated the walls in my room with markers. That’s when I decided I wanted to write a book about a creative third grader who likes to doodle.
Michael: My “vision” for Sam is evidenced on most any of my 3rd through 12th-grade test papers. And I’m unsure if the term “test” referred to me academically, or the patience of my teachers.
2) How did the two of you meet?
Judy: On Matchdot.com. Oops sorry, that’s wrong. Michael illustrated several covers and interiors of my art activity books (Williamson Books, an imprint of Ideal Publications.) I was so impressed with his work that I asked him to send along a few illustrations for my early chapter book manuscript. Luckily he agreed.
Michael: Judy was my third grade religion teacher, and… just kidding. We met through Susan Williamson at Williamson Publishing. And oddly enough, we’ve never actually met, though I must assume that Judy is a former Miss America winner with a brain like Nora Ephron. We initially joined forces with an activity book entitled Vroom Vroom, a book that encouraged kids to build all manner of vehicles from household objects. Within, Judy explained how to build little people out of peanuts and pipe cleaners. I needed a foil for my artwork and sight gags, so the peanut people showed up en masse. The crowning glory was when I illustrated a lawyer peanut chasing after an ambulance built from milk cartons. I believe the stage was set after that.
3) What is your process for working on a Sam Dibble book?
Judy: When I wrote my art activity books (The Little Hands Art Book, etc.) I played with toilet paper tubes and came up with a craft. But writing fiction, especially when it involves kid’s humor, is a whole different pile of poop. My day starts with sitting in an uncomfortable chair and thinking about what I’m going to write. Unable to come up with an idea, I watch repeats of Hoarders. When that doesn’t work (except to get me to clean my house) I throw a handful of ingredients into my crockpot. The smell of food puts me in a good mood and if nothing comes from my writing at least I can say that I made dinner. If it’s an especially productive day I begin by getting into the mindset of my characters. The dialogue in my head tells me how Sam will react in different situations. After I’ve written for a while I look at the clock. It’s ten A.M. Time to break for lunch. The rest of the day goes by quickly and by five o’clock I’ve decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer and maybe it’s time to apply for a real job.
Michael: For me, it’s simply a matter of digging into that part of me as a child that I never let go of. As a child, I always felt that the books my parents owned were sadly in need of more illustration. I obliged and was often castigated by my mother for “ruining” things. However, nowadays she proudly presents those early works to visitors, speaking glowingly of my young artistic achievements. (What the H mom?)
For Dibble in particular, I first read the entirety of Judy’s manuscript (now in layout form, which I prefer), then begin by pencil sketching (right-handed) directly on those pages. Once I’m happy with the look, I flip those pages onto the light table (upside down), and begin the inking process using my left hand, in order to give the art a bit of slop, or “Dibbleness” as I call it. Then, I scan the art, flip it back to right-reading in Photoshop, and send it off to Debbie Guy, who is doing the layout (wonderfully I might add). My left-handed approach is owing to the fact that I simply draw too well with my right hand, and needs to have the look and feel of a third-grade artist. I always work on spreads (not single pages) as I feel that the two pages are seen as one, and I appreciate the interactivity, as in a trail of some kind leading from one page to the next.
I’ve also taken the bold step of circumventing the sketch approval process by sending finished art the first time. Given that the illustrations are simple enough, this process appears to be working wonderfully and buys us (the publisher and myself) some extra time down the road. And if anyone is wondering, yes, I’m often laughing at what is happening within the series as well as what I plan for it.
4) Describe your experience being on submission in slush?
Judy: Since many submissions are now online, it takes all the fun out of ripping open your SASE and seeing the form rejection; “Dear Writer, we at Hot Shot Publishing enjoyed reading your manuscript and feel it could be a Newberry contender however it isn’t quite right for our list and we wish you luck in placing it elsewhere.” After receiving one or two (okay, maybe it was more like a few) of these rejections, I read that Penguin would accept a hard copy. I submitted a few pages to Bonnie Bader, Editor-in-Chief at Grosset & Dunlap (Penguin Young Readers Group) along with some illustrations that M. drew (warning: that’s a big NO NO when submitting to publishers so Don’t Ever Do It!) At that time, Sarah Zhang was an editorial assistant and she had the unenviable task of culling through the slush pile in order to find a hidden gem (or fart, as is the case with Sam Dibble.) Sarah brought Dibble to Bonnie and as they say, the rest is history.
Michael: By “slush,” I assume you mean an author/illustrator combo pulled from a rather large pile of submissions, and not two people that happen to live in a state that gets a lot of snow followed by a lot of warming? I’ll opt for the former. I was approached by Judy because she seemed to feel that the atmosphere surrounding Sam Dibble (originally Ben Dibble, but she can weigh in on that aspect) could only be told with words and pictures. Doodling was what Dibble was all about, so 50% of the submission would (we felt) go untold without it. Ironically, whenever I visit with wannabe illustrators and authors, one of the first things out of my mouth is to not submit artwork of any kind, owing to the knowledge that publishers typically will have an artist (among a stable) more than capable of assisting the story. And if they wish to submit just an illustration portfolio, leave the words out of it. Guess I’m not very good at heeding my own advice…
5) How did you feel when you got the phone call from Bonnie saying she was buying your series?
Judy: After I awakened in the E.R. my husband told me that I had fainted while talking to someone named Bonnie Bader and that he hung up the phone because he thought it was a scheme to sell me a series of chapter books.
Michael: I received the call from Judy that we were IN, but I do recall the word “woot” becoming part of my vernacular that day.
6) Any advice for aspiring authors and illustrators?
Judy: My writer’s group (Rt. 19 Writers) just spent an amazing weekend with Emma Dryden (drydenbks.com) We brought her to Pittsburgh to critique our work and give us an update on the “business” side of writing. Emma asked to see ten pages of our manuscript along with a synopsis. Our group gathered at my house Friday evening for the first two manuscript reviews. On Saturday another member hosted the event and the remaining manuscripts were critiqued. Emma was so impressed with our group and we in turn gained so much from her insights and suggestions. I would recommend to anyone who writes to join a group. It’s the camaraderie and friendship that will sustain you in this tough business.
Michael: Of course. Plodding this artistic course for many years gives me a great (if semi-inaccurate) perspective. Do what you do best, and leave the rest to the rest. Turn over every stone and open every door. You never know what you’ll find underneath or on the other side. And don’t forget to reward yourself. I enjoy a glass of wine every night for a job well done (whether it actually was or not, meh). Hmmm, I just thought of something else (how much room do I have?). I think it’s very important to find something about your vocation that you love doing. Having a passion–whether for writing, illustrating, or working on transmissions–will give you the energy to stay in your game for the long haul. Oh, and pay your taxes.
7) Finally: What’s your favorite literary cocktail?
Judy: Since I’m driving I’ll have to pass on this question. But if you really must know, I have a very short attention span so I enjoy any book under two hundred pages. My favorite chapter book authors are Beverly Cleary, James Preller, Marc Brown, Bruce Hale and Marjorie Sharmat.
Michael: Ummm, good question. If there exists a “recipe” to that cocktail, it would read something like “Take 2 parts Tolkien, 1 part Calvin and Hobbes, shake vigorously, set aside for 5 days, then serve it in a large biographical tumbler with just a hint of Mary Shelley.” In short, a long tale imbued with a vivid imagination. And my personal literary request? “Don’t tell me what you did, tell me how you did it.”
To celebrate Judy and Michael’s slush pile success we are giving away a pair finished copies of the first two books in The Doodles of Sam Dibble!
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Judy Press has lived in Pittsburgh PA for many years but remains a New Yorker at heart. She is the award winning author of twelve art activity books for Williamson Publishing and her craft activities have appeared in Family Fun and Parenting Magazine. Judy’s early chapter book series, The Doodles of Sam Dibble (Grosset & Dunlap) was recently released to the delight of third graders with a fondness for doodling.