It’s the week before Christmas and I have a truly special book to share with you. Spot on to get you in the Christmas spirit is a new book written by Tom Brenner and illustrated by Jana Christy (Candlewick Press). Tom stopped by to tell us more about it...

Q. Hi, Tom! I love how you focus on the moments of preparation, with as much magic as ’TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS has itself. For truly, I think the rituals of preparing for Christmas are sometimes the best parts. What do they mean to you?
I agree that the preparations for Christmas are the best part. My early childhood Christmases were absolute magic. Until I was about six or seven, “Santa” brought the tree in, decorated it, and laid out the presents—all of them, including those from my aunts and uncles (I never made that connection until much later!) This was before TV so I didn’t see shows about Christmas and stores didn’t decorate until December. We listened to carols, Mom baked like crazy, and I counted the days on my fingers. On Christmas Eve, I went to bed with the living room just like it had been all year long. For that night my sisters and I slept in the same room and in the middle of the night one of us would go ask our parents if Santa had come. Dad would “go look,” and he’d light a fire, plug in the tree lights—the signal for us to run down the steps. The soft light of the fire, the decorated tree with small sparkling colored lights, and the presents! For me, the room’s transformation couldn’t have been more astonishing.That wondrous moment of Christmas morning lost a lot on the Christmas Eve when, after I had gone to bed, I heard noises and went downstairs to see them all trimming the tree. I joined them, and that was fun, too, but those early years have stayed with me.

Q. The artwork by Jana Christy is just right for this sweet story - were you thrilled when you saw it?
Yes, I was thrilled when I saw it. A friend said the artwork reminded her of those beautiful old Christmas cards. And I like that image. I also like the two different feelings of the two books—the watercolor and collage of the Halloween book and then the softer, excited high energy feel of the Christmas book. I was very impressed to learn that Jana’s work was totally digital. I have trouble texting!

Q. This isn’t the first “And Then Comes” book you’ve done - tell us about AND THEN COMES HALLOWEEN (illustrated by the late Holly Meade). Is this now a series?
Yes, it is. AND THEN COMES SUMMER will come out in the spring of 2017.

Q. What was your path into publication?
I took a Writing for Children class in the Fall of 2005 at the University of Washington in Seattle. A mid-October assignment was to write a picture book. Because my dream was to write Middle Grade/YA novels, I hadn’t paid any attention to picture books. I hadn’t held or read one for years. I wrote something that I guessed fulfilled the assignment. I woke in the middle of the night the day before the assignment was due, thinking, you know, what I wrote wasn’t very good. My thoughts drifted to Halloween and a conversation I had about setting the clocks back, a sign that Fall was definitely here. A line popped into my head—“When nighttime creeps closer to suppertime” –then kids have to get busy with their costumes. Other “When” lines came. A few “Then” lines. The next morning I typed what I remembered and established the pattern of three WHEN lines and one THEN line. I had Spike Jones music in my head with soft lyrical orchestral sounds for the changing of the season lines broken by a frenetic banging and clashing cymbals for the THEN you got to get busy finding or making a costume lines. I ended the story with dumping the candy on the floor. My teachers made helpful comments and suggestions. And I had the good fortune to be placed in a SCBWI critiquing session headed by Kirby Larson, who was extremely helpful and said I couldn’t end with the kids just eating candy, but something about next year. It was only after that session that I started to think about submitting—with the hope of publication. I sent it to 11 editors. Nine were form rejections or no reply. Two responded. One who would take another look if I beefed up Halloween night. The other who said she had comments. The idea of comments rather than guessing what beefing up meant was the tie breaker, so I contacted her.

Q. Tom, the text in AND THEN COMES CHRISTMAS reads so lyrically and simply, and yet I know most writers struggle to make it appear that easy. How long did it take you to get the words just right?
I like to talk about this when I’m presenting to a class of third graders. I contacted that editor around the first of August, 2006. She bought it on December 17, 2006. The manuscript I submitted was 374 words. The final manuscript was 409 words. Of course, I thought my story was perfect when I sent it out--three published picture book writers had vetted it. A third of my original words made it through. My guess is that the editor and I exchanged about 20,000 words in getting to the final draft. What I realized, much later, was that she had an image of how the story should be paced and I didn’t have any image other than getting a costume and going Trick or Treating. Most of her words were trying to make me see that pacing. The end result is far better than what I submitted. Most of the words in the book are mine, but when I didn’t come up with what she thought had the right tone, she made suggestions and some of them were bang on. So, I would say, that’s great. The editing process was fun and I think that my ten years as an advertising copywriter where I batted ideas and words around with art directors and copy chiefs helped me to work with the editor in that way.

Q. How did this story come to you?
This question relates to the Christmas Book, but first--
      The Halloween book came out in 2009. I spent most of September and October doing school visits. During the time between 01/2007 and 07/2009 I had sent my editor several picture books, a chapter book, and a novel—all rejected, except the novel was still hanging in there. In early November, 2009, I sent her an email saying I’d like to do those school visits with another book. Me, thinking, the novel. She responded that a Christmas book might be nice. It took me two days to grasp the meaning of what she said. Since I had the WHEN/THEN format established, I dashed off a bunch of lines, all WHEN lines, not being able to think of THEN lines. About four days later, the THEN lines came—string lights around the house, look for a tree, bring it in, decorate it, make presents for the family, set out the cookies and milk for Santa, all those small things that lead up to the day. She bought the book sometime around the end of January, 2010. And four months later, the revision started.
      Because the pattern was already established, it was a matter of finding the WHENs and THENs that pleased both the editor and me—line by line. An example: I wanted to get in the hanging the stockings, but it wasn’t working. My wife suggested a line. It was wonderful. A week later it was cut. A colleague of the editor suggested the sitting on Santa’s knee. I’d forgotten about Santa. I added the hop from one foot to the other while waiting, remembering my kids standing in line. The books, including the Summer one, have been collaborative!

Q. What’s your favorite spot to write?
I’ve built a small studio at the back end of our property, in the trees. So far, it’s more storage space than writing space. All the books to date have been done at a desk in the bedroom. Someday … the studio!

Q. Do you have any advice for those following in your footsteps?
Luck played a major role in my getting published. So I’d say be ready for luck to happen—show up, have something to send after a chance meeting, follow up after any help given; be involved in the children’s writing community; and don’t give up.

Q. How are you celebrating the release of AND THEN COMES CHRISTMAS?
I’ve done local library and bookstore readings. I’ll be interviewed on our local radio station on Tuesday morning.

Q. I love your writing and look forward to more books from you Tom!
Thanks again and happy holidays, Tom.

Candlewick has kindly offered to send a free copy of AND THEN COMES CHRISTMAS to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US to win - enter below:

AND THEN COMES CHRISTMAS. Text copyright © 2014 by Tom Brenner. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jana Christy. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.


Geo Librarian said...

I always find it interesting to hear about all the work that goes into making these incredible picture books that I share with my students.

bn100 said...

Nice interview

apple blossom said...

sounds like a super fun book thanks for the chance to win

Jess A said...

Would love to share this book with my daughter and add it to our holiday book collection. Christmas is such a magical time of year & she's learning to connect letters to words now.
Jess A

apple blossom said...

I'd love to share this picture book with the students I teach thanks

apple blossom said...

the illustrations in this book look awesome thanks

LadyD Piano said...

Great interview and thanks so much for sharing a writer's journey. This looks like a delightful read!

Darlene Mergendahl said...

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year!! Love book GIVEAWAYS!!!! Best kind of presents ever!

Unknown said...

I loved hearing about your process. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I would love to read this book with my kids. Perfect for the holidays!
marypopmom (at) yahoo (dot) com

apple blossom said...

very interesting interview thanks for sharing with us

Anonymous said...

There's just something about a Christmas book and Santa Claus. The books fly off of the shelf all year long. Children and adults love Santa books!! Very interesting that it started with Halloween!

Brooke Showalter said...

Oh this book looks wonderful! I love Christmas stories, and this looks like the perfect book to cuddle up and read with my 3 year old. :) Merry Christmas!

apple blossom said...

Thanks for the giveaway and Merry Christmas to you