Josh Funk is not only one of the best and most popular picture book authors today, he’s a super positive guy who goes out of his way to boost other authors’ books.
His enthusiasm is infectious. Funk burst onto the scene in 2015 with the thrilling Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast, a whimsical tale of dueling foods told in rhyme. His most recent hit, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, flips the classic fairy tale on its head. I recently heard Funk speak on a podcast and I knew he would have some great advice and inspirational tips for aspiring BookBaby authors.
Can we talk about how you got published? That’s the first thing aspiring authors ask me, and it’s certainly what’s on many authors’ minds. I read that Kate DiCamillo received over 400 rejection letters before getting published with Because of Winn-Dixie. Did you experience anything like that? Did you pitch other books before Lady Pancake? Did you change Lady Pancake because of feedback or the pitch process?
I’ve heard the same thing about Kate DiCamillo (I think it was 493 rejections — all snail mail, too!). I was rejected almost a hundred times by agents and editors before receiving an offer on Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast. But the first 50+ were early on in my writing life for other manuscripts that I now realize weren’t ready for prime time (and likely never will be). It took several years before I learned enough about both the art form and the business of writing picture books.
I don’t mean to say that I shouldn’t have written or queried those first manuscripts — it was an important part of my journey and a huge learning experience. I needed to go through the process of writing, revising, getting critiques, querying, getting rejected, revising more, and so on with those earlier manuscripts.
And I still received loads of rejections (26 from agents, and 14 from editors) for Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast. And when I say “rejection,” I’m including the ever-so-common “black hole” response (which means I never even got a response). The truth is, I never really received any editorial feedback on the manuscript (other than from critique partners). Out of the 26 agents, only two responded as if they even read the manuscript (one of whom said “anthropomorphic foods are a tough sell”). 12 sent form rejections and the other 12 never responded.
Maybe it was because it was written in rhyme (which is notoriously frowned upon). Maybe (likely) it was because I used a pseudonym (R.I.P. Papa J Funk). Maybe I was terrible at writing queries. But all it takes is one “yes.” And that came from an editor at Sterling Children’s after they found it in their slush pile.
At what point did you know you had struck gold with Lady Pancake?
Wow! Struck gold? Thanks! The first time I think I felt what you’re talking about was at the 2013 New England SCBWI Conference (held annually each spring — you should TOTALLY go if you haven’t).
It was my second annual conference and I got up the courage to read a draft of Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast at the open mic. I learned at my first conference that I should attend the whole weekend and become a volunteer — so I did. I met a ton of people and dragged a bunch in to the open mic. I got a big cheer from my new friends after finishing, and at that point, I certainly felt I was on to something.
Also, as soon as I saw Brendan Kearney’s illustrations, I could tell this book was gonna be fun.
But the bottom line is that there are so many amazing picture books made every year. You never know which are going to connect with people. A lot has to do with the marketing effort put forth by the publisher — and let me tell you, Sterling’s marketing, publicity, and sales teams have been INCREDIBLE!
People often ask me where I find inspiration, and I tell them I usually find it in the unlikeliest — and often kid-inappropriate — places (Calvino novels, cult horror movies, drinking games, jokes, etc.) Do you have a favorite moment or source of inspiration for your books? Any methods you use to stir the imagination?
I get lots of ideas from my kids — especially when they’re arguing. A good book needs some conflict, right?
I find that my best ideas come in those moments where my mind is free to wander. Just as I’m falling asleep is a common time for inspiration to strike (probably because I’m half dreaming). In the shower, I often think of a good line or two for a picture book.
Basically, I get my best ideas when I don’t force myself to have ideas.
You mentioned you are a software engineer. How do you balance your work and writing and parenting, especially since you must need to travel to support your books?
Luckily I like both of my jobs. Writing code and writing books are very different, but I try my best to have fun with it all. My family is very supportive. I try to keep my travel and events to a single day per weekend, although sometimes I do travel for a few days at a time for conferences and the like.
I will admit that I haven’t exercised in a few years.
Do you have daily writing routines or do you write on-the-fly or somewhere in between?
I’m way more of an on-the-fly type of writer. Maybe someday I’ll be disciplined enough to have routines, but at the moment I write when I get a great idea that really excites me. And then I write and revise with intensity for a few days/weeks until I’m ready to share with critique partners and my agent.
Your books are jam-packed with visual details, which helps to fuel the desire to reread them again (and again and again). I know it can be a little weird to hand your words over to someone (who, I am assuming, you didn’t know already) and let them swing away. Can you talk a little about the process of creating the visuals for your book? This seems to be a mysterious process for authors who don’t illustrate their own books to understand. (I worked with a friend, so my experience is probably different from yours.) How much input did you have? Were there any missteps along the way? What kind of directions (if any) did you give when submitting the manuscript?
First, let me say, I (and my kids) are huge fans of the Mr. Pants series! You and R. H. Lazzell did incredible work (for proof, see this tweet from 2015)
As far as handing off the art, that’s one of the things you learn pretty early on when you start to write picture books — the writer has little (or no) control of what the art will look like — and will probably have no direct communication with the illustrator (and you are correct — I have not met any of the illustrators prior to them illustrating our books).
For my first few books, I gave zero illustrator notes. Of late, I’ve given a few, but it’s usually more of just “suggestions” of visual gags. The artists think of better stuff anyway, so I wouldn’t want to hinder or constrict their creativity.
And it’s always worked out perfectly. The artists I’ve been paired with have all been incredible and the editors, art directors, and designers are all extremely talented people whose jobs are to know how to make a great book.
When I think about it, it makes perfect sense, though. Just because I wrote some words and read lots of books doesn’t mean I know where the page turns should go. I have no idea what will make an attractive cover. I don’t know what will help sales when it’s face out in a bookshop — or what will look good as a tiny little icon at online retailers.
As time has gone on in my career, I’ve been asked for a little more input regarding the art — but again, this makes sense. I’ve been through the process. I’ve read my own books aloud hundreds of times. I have a better sense of what the end product should look like.
But the truth is, the art is ALWAYS way better than I ever hope it could be when I write the words. If I thought I could do it better, I should have learned to draw.
Every new experience brings a certain number of expected discoveries, but there also tend to be unexpected discoveries. For me, publishing a book opened my eyes to the true role an editor plays. What unexpected things did you learn?
Well, so much of a book’s success depends on the enthusiasm of the publisher’s marketing, publicity, school & library, and sales teams. If they get behind your book, it’s huge. Sterling has been incredible at getting word out about the Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast series. Penguin’s School & Library marketing team is the single biggest reason Dear Dragon has connected with so many classrooms. And Two Lions threw a ton of support behind It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk with blog tours and giveaways up the wazoo. I’ve been very fortunate to have had so much in-house publisher support — but this isn’t the case for every book.
So many great books get published every year, some of them get lost and overlooked or just don’t find their audience for some reason or another. Lots of the marketing and publicity falls to the books’ creators — and an individual’s reach is sometimes only so far. You just never know what’s gonna connect with people.
We seem to be living in a golden age of picture books, with all kinds of storytelling approaches being explored. What are some interesting things you’re seeing in picture books today?
Golden age, for sure. And so much of that is due to the many incredibly talented artists in the field today. But we’re also at a point where so much has already been done in picture books — and some of the best-selling books every year (books that every baby must own) were written as long as 70 years ago (see Goodnight Moon, published in 1947).
For that reason, I’m in favor of taking risks — even when some people say something is a “tough sell.”
While meta books (books that cross the fourth wall or are self-aware) have always been around (see The Slant Book from 1910 or The Monster at the End of this Book from 1971), they’ve become very popular lately. Claymates by Dev Petty and Lauren Eldridge, where two globs of clay in an artist’s studio come to life, is a great new twist on meta.
As you probably guessed, I’m always up for anthropomorphizing something different. How about letters and numbers? For that, see 7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar and Ross MacDonald.
Nonfiction has become a really exciting area — it’s not just lists of facts anymore! There are so many imaginative ways authors are conveying information — often using humor. Check out The World of Weird Animals series by Jess Keating, and Pink is for Blobfish, What Makes a Monster?, and the upcoming Cute as an Axolotl are brilliantly jam-packed with both info and entertainment.
The standard answers to “What advice do you have for authors” are: read more, write more, listen more, etc. What’s the most interesting and perhaps unexpected strategy you discovered in your quest to write that you want to pass along to other authors?
Well, especially for picture book authors, I like to expand on the “write more” advice by saying: Keep writing new things.
You can write and revise a manuscript over and over and over again, and during that process you’ll learn a lot. But it’s important to take what you’ve learned and write something new. That next manuscript will start off in a much better place than the first one. You might even learn that your first manuscript has some inherent flaw that no amount of revision can fix (like 1,200-word picture books aren’t marketable, or there are already enough picture books about farm animals).
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a keynote speaker say something like, “and after 10 years and seven completed manuscripts, my first novel was published.” If that keynoter hadn’t continued writing new things, that seventh manuscript would never have been written — and it’s highly likely the first one would still be unpublished.
Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you first started writing?
First, I wouldn’t have used a pseudonym. Second, I may have shied away from rhyme (but probably not). Most importantly, I would have spent more time learning about the craft. It’s not that I didn’t learn tons — I’m still learning lots every day — but if I had spent more time learning up front, it certainly would be helping me now.
Tell me about your next books and when they hit stores.
2018 is going to be a pretty busy year. I have four picture books scheduled to be released between spring and summer.
5/1/18: Albie Newton, illustrated by Ester Garay, published by Sterling Children’s. Albie is a smart and creative boy, but doesn’t have all the social skills down yet. On the first day of school, his attempt to make friends causes lots of problems for his classmates, and … well, you’ll have to read it to find out how it ends. But I think lots of children will relate to Albie Newton and the other kids in his class.
5/15/18: How to Code a Sandcastle, illustrated by Sara Palacios, published by Viking/Penguin in partnership with Girls Who Code. This is the first in a series of informational fiction picture books about a girl named Pearl and her robot, Pascal. In this first book, they use fundamental coding concepts to construct the perfect beach day using sequences, loops, and conditionals — but using them in real world situations.
8/28/18: Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience & Fortitude, illustrated by Stevie Lewis, published by Henry Holt/Macmillan in partnership with the New York Public Library. This is the first picture book about Patience and Fortitude, the two lion statues that faithfully guard the New York Public Library steps. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude realizes that Patience has ventured inside the library. So for the first time ever, Fortitude abandons his post to search for Patience before the sun rises and we, the readers, get to explore the library for the first time alongside Fortitude.
9/4/18: Mission: Defrostable (Book 3 in the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series), illustrated by Brendan Kearney, published by Sterling Children’s. In this thrilling action-packed adventure, the fridge is freezing over, and Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast have to travel to parts of the fridge they’ve never ventured … and need to enlist the help of the villainous Baron von Waffle if they’re going to succeed.
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books, including the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series (including The Case of the Stinky Stench and the upcoming Mission: Defrostable), It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Dear Dragon, Pirasaurs!, and the forthcoming Albie Newton, How to Code a Sandcastle (in conjunction with Girls Who Code), Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (in conjunction with the New York Public Library), It’s Not Hansel and Gretel, and more coming soon!
Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes manuscripts. Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. For more information about Josh Funk, visit him at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.
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