Author of Let’s Dance!, illustrated by Maine Diaz
Valerie Bolling has been an educator for over 25 years and a writer since age 4. She is a graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College and currently works as an Instructional Coach. Her nieces inspired her to write picture books. Her desire is for children of all backgrounds to see themselves in her stories and feel valued and heard. Ms. Bolling and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, theater, and dancing.
Valerie’s debut picture book, LET’S DANCE! (Boyd’s Mills & Kane), with illustrations by Maine Diaz, is a lively celebration of dances from around the world. You can check out my review of LET’S DANCE here. From the kuku of West Africa to the cha-cha of Cuba to the stepdancing of Ireland, dancing is everywhere you go. The rhythmic prose of Let’s Dance! encourages readers to tap, spin, and boogie along! *Read to the end of this post for details about how to win a FREE critique of your picture book manuscript or query letter (your choice) from Valerie.*
Thanks for agreeing to talk to me about your debut picture book, LET’S DANCE!
First of all, how long have you been writing, and writing picture books in particular? Tell us about your journey.
I think I may have been born with a pencil in my hand. I have always loved writing ever since I learned how at age 4. By first grade, I was applying phonics lessons to “poems.” I created simple rhymes, like: There is a cat. It sat on a mat. It caught a rat. Is it ironic then that my debut picture book is a series of rhyming stanzas?
I wrote picture books in elementary school, and I wrote a couple as an adult as part of a school-wide initiative. More recently, in December 2016, after a week-long visit with my nieces, I was inspired to write two stories in which each of them was the protagonist. In January 2017 when my husband and I discussed our goals for the year, I decided to learn more about writing picture books and possibly look into publication.
I contacted people I believed could be helpful resources – and they were – and I wrote and wrote and wrote. And revised even more. I took a course at Westport Writers that spring. In June of 2017, I started writing query letters to agents and editors and began to participate in Twitter pitches. In a June 2018 #PBPitch, Let’s Dance! was “liked” by Jes Negrón, an editor at Boyds Mills & Kane, and less than two weeks later, I received the news that my book had been accepted for publication!
How cool that you sold this manuscript after the editor liked your pitch in the Twitter #PBPitch contest. That seems like winning the lottery – only with more skill involved. Do you mind sharing the pitch you used?
I don’t mind sharing it all. It’s actually posted on the #PBPitch website on the “Book Deals/Success Stories” page.
A girl dances the cha-cha-cha; a boy zig-zag-zigs in his wheelchair. Dancing is a universal language, even though we all have different “accents.” This is a story that leaves no doubt that dancing is for everyone! #PBPitch #POC #OWN #DIS
Thank you for your congratulations. I’m honored to have won this accolade! Even more, I’m thrilled to have Kelly Starling Lyons as my mentor because I stated in my application that she was my preferred mentor.
Kelly has made herself available to me when I’ve had questions, and I expect to learn a lot from her during this year that she and I will work together. I am grateful for this support and am truly grateful to have been named a WNDB Mentee.
Do you have a specific process or tools you use to make revisions?
I don’t have a particular process when I revise. Sometimes I’m responding to specific feedback I’ve received. At other times, I’ve let a manuscript sit for a few weeks and then revisit it with fresher eyes. Sometimes I’m working on a certain aspect of a manuscript: character development, tension, or language, for example.
For tools, I consult notes I’ve taken at conference workshops and from webinars. I also read picture books constantly, and some serve as mentor texts.
Reading widely is so important. How do you know when your manuscripts are “ready” to submit?
I suppose in some ways there’s always doubt when submitting. Even when I feel a manuscript is ready, it still gets rejected. I’m much more careful about submitting now than I was when I first started writing. I put my stories through multiple revisions, usually 10 – 20, and they go through rounds with my critique group, my critique angels (a group of my friends), and my writing partner. Sometimes those providing feedback say, “It’s ready” or “I have no other feedback to give,” but I still have to believe myself that a manuscript is ready before submitting it.
When I submit, I consider my manuscript “ready for now” but expect an agent or editor to request revision, if s/he decides to acquire it. That didn’t happen with Let’s Dance! though. Jes didn’t suggest any revisions. The only change to my words was deleting two stanzas to fit within the 32-page format of the book. I realize this is atypical.
That’s amazing! Your book intrigued me because the text is so sparse. What did the manuscript look like? Did you have to use a lot of art notes, or one overall note explaining the concept? Or did you let the text speak for itself?
The manuscript I submitted had only one illustrator note at the end about the last spread, which read, “The sheep are dancing.” Jes asked me to re-send the manuscript to her with an illustrator note for each spread, which I did. Months later, she contacted me to say she thought we were missing out on an opportunity to make the story more global. She recognized that some of my words could describe cultural dances. For instance, where I had noted that “Tappity-tap/Fingers snap” should be tap dance, Jes imagined flamenco from Spain. I was definitely excited by Jes’ idea! Having this global dimension to the book, I hope, makes it more unique and appealing.
Definitely. I love that LET’S DANCE! highlights dances from all around the world. What was your inspiration? Are you a dancer?
Everyone – or most people – love to dance! Turn on music and watch people – especially young, uninhibited children – start to move. The first sentence of my pitch for Let’s Dance! was “Dancing is a universal language, even though we all have different ‘accents.’” My goal was to show children from all walks – or dances – of life: a boy in a wheelchair, a girl in hijab, a child in a tutu whose gender is indiscernible. I wanted my story to showcase dance in a way that celebrates diversity – and that leaves no doubt that dancing is indeed for everyone!
I am not a dancer in the traditional sense, but I love dancing! Any time there’s dancing, I pop up out of my seat. I cannot resist the chance to dance.
I love that. Let’s talk about agents. You’re unagented, right? What’s your experience been like working with an editor and marketing your book without an agent? Are you actively seeking agent representation?
I had an excellent experience working with Jes. I don’t feel I missed out by not having an agent for this book deal. I was given a very fair deal, perhaps better than fair in a couple of ways. My contract was vetted by Stephen Mooser at SCBWI and the Authors Guild, and Jes was great about answering all of my questions and supporting me throughout the process.
I am still actively seeking agent representation, but it has to be the right agent. As I state on my website: “I am seeking an agent who shares my vision and passion of inclusiveness in children’s literature, engages in honest communication, and works earnestly to ensure that my manuscripts become published books.” Just as agents are highly selective about the books they represent, authors, too, must be equally selective about choosing an agent.
Great point. Maine Diaz’s illustrations are gorgeous. So vibrant and fun, and perfect for the lively subject matter of LET’S DANCE! Did you get to participate in choosing the illustrator at all?
Jes did allow me to have input into the illustrator, which I appreciated, because I know that doesn’t usually happen. I was also able to weigh in on two or three rounds of sketches, and the input I provided was implemented.
Did you have any communication with Maine Diaz during the process of creating the final picture book, or did you each work your magic separately?
As is typical during the publication process, Maine and I did not communicate. Jes is the one with whom we both communicated. Jes knew my vision (diverse children featured prominently) and tweaked it to add the global aspect (cultural dances). She communicated the vision to Maine who obviously illustrated this vision phenomenally.
How did it feel to see LET’S DANCE in full color for the first time?
AMAZING! It was better than I could have imagined! I was THRILLED with the interplay of my words and vision, Jes’ vision, and Maine’s art.
What advice would you give to aspiring picture book authors?
- Immerse yourself in writing opportunities and in the writing community by taking a course, joining SCBWI, going to conferences, joining a critique group, and participating in contests.
- Continue writing, even when you face rejection.
Thank you, Valerie! And congratulations on your debut picture book!
Thank you, Rachel, for taking the time to interview me. It truly means a lot that you are getting the word out about Let’s Dance! and allowing me to share my publication journey with your readers.
One lucky reader will win their choice of a picture book manuscript critique OR a query letter critique from Valerie. Please follow @rachel_funez and @valerie_bolling on Twitter, and comment below by Sunday, March 15th, to be entered to win. Winners will be chosen on Monday, March 16th, 2020,* and announced here on my blog and on Twitter. (*Prize must be claimed within 2 weeks of announcement by contacting me or Valerie.)