interview by Anne-Marie Strohman
We’re so pleased to welcome Amy Dixon to the blog! I met Amy a couple decades ago through friends when we both lived in San Luis Obispo, California. It’s been delightful to reconnect over the last few years through writing for children. Amy’s writing journey began with picture books, and I was interested to find out more about her transition into middle grade.
You’re having a busy writing year. Can you tell us what’s happening at the moment?
This year has definitely been busy in the best way! My newest picture book, Maurice the Unbeastly, came out with Sterling Children’s in September, so I’ve been busy celebrating and promoting its release. I’m also knee-deep in the editing process with my middle grade novel, Annie B., Made for TV, which is coming out with Running Press Kids in June 2018.
You’ve published three picture books, and your first middle grade novel is coming out. When you set out to write, did you think you’d want to write middle grade, or were you focused on picture books only?
I started trying to write picture books right after my third child, Gracie, was born. I had three small kids, and we spent a ton of time reading. I found myself studying the books we checked out from the library. Which books did my kids keep coming back to and why? Which books did I enjoy reading and why? And which books did I want to hide from them because I thought I might lose it if I had to read it to them one more time? My husband traveled a lot for work, so after the kids went to bed at 7:00, I found myself bored and looking for a creative outlet. So I wrote a picture book. Then I got online and began to educate myself about the publishing process. I realized pretty quickly that I had a ton to learn and that the picture book I wrote was terrible. Over the next three years I wrote a dozen or so more picture book manuscripts (and had another baby!) before I sold my first one, Marathon Mouse, to Sky Pony Press in 2011. So, at first, I was definitely solely focused on picture books.
What made you want to write middle grade?
As my kids are growing up, I find myself wanting to read what they are reading. I love talking about books with them. Right now, they are 15, 13, 11, and 9. So a lot of middle grade has been read in our house over the last few years. I also love to read aloud to them before bedtime. My 15 and 13 year olds have sort of outgrown it (though the 13 year old still sneaks into the younger girls’ room to listen sometimes), but my husband and I still take turns reading to them at night, and it’s one of my favorite things. It’s so fun to watch my kids respond to good stories…they sigh, gasp, and shout indignantly in all the right places. I love writing middle grade because I feel like the kids reading it are at an age where they still throw themselves wholeheartedly into stories. They ask all the questions and feel all the feelings that you’re hoping they will when they read it. Middle grade is awesome!
Tell us about the process of writing Annie B.
Believe it or not, Annie B. actually started out as a picture book manuscript! It was originally called Annie Opposite, and the main character was a kid who believed if only everything in her life was the opposite of what it actually was, then everything would be perfect. The feedback I got on it was that Annie’s voice was great but was reading much older, and that maybe I should consider writing a chapter book. So after a while, I decided I would try a chapter book. Annie B. became a chapter book and lived there for a while. I submitted the manuscript to a few agents and got more feedback…they loved Annie’s voice but thought she had a longer story to tell. They asked if I had ever thought of turning her into a middle grade? I actually had an agent CALL ME to give me detailed feedback and suggestions on how to do it. Crazy! So eventually, Annie transformed once again, and she became a middle grade novel.
What books did you look to as mentor texts for Annie B.? What were you looking at in each?
The book I found myself returning to time and time again while writing Annie B. was A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban. For me, it’s the perfect example of a middle grade book that is driven by voice, and I knew that was the kind of book I wanted to write. Annie’s voice had been with me for so long, and I knew she was the heart and soul, the everything of this book. I wanted to get it right. Linda Urban does such an amazing job in her book of creating moments that have the reader nodding along with her main character, Zoe, and feeling everything alongside her. I also loved her use of short chapters and how that affected the pacing of the book. Total admiration.
What have been the biggest differences between writing picture books and middle grade?
When I first started trying to write middle grade, I didn’t know what to do with all the words. Seriously. With picture books, I am constantly cutting, cutting, cutting. It’s actually very precise. So having the freedom to use all the words I wanted was sort of paralyzing. Also, because picture books are accompanied by illustrations, I had never really needed to describe things. After writing my first draft of Annie B., I went back through and found myself writing the note, “What does this look like?” over and over. With my picture books, I pore over every single word, until I am sure that each one is the right word in the right place. With middle grade, it is much more difficult to have that kind of certainty about each word. I’m more dependent on a bigger-picture sense of what type of feeling a sentence evokes, versus precise language.
How have the publication processes differed between PBs and MG?
I have found the processes so different! Picture books really are an art form, and it takes time for that art to be created. As an author, you sometimes feel out of control when it comes to picture books because the publisher gets to decide what direction to go with the illustrations. And there’s a lot of waiting and hoping and praying that happens for me in that process. I’ve been blessed with three beautiful and completely different art styles in my books. The collaboration aspect of picture books is both exciting and maddening!
With middle grade, it’s really all about the words, and they’re all mine. Which can also be scary because the whole weight of its success falls squarely on my shoulders. I did find out recently that there will be some graphic elements sprinkled throughout Annie B., which is exciting. I’ve seen some preliminary sketches and they’re adorable!
What are you working on right now? As you move forward in your career, do you plan to focus on PB or MG, or switch between the two? (Or is there a YA in your future?)
I’m actually trying my hand at a non-fiction picture book biography right now. It has been an interesting process, and I’m learning a lot. I do have two other middle grade ideas floating around in my brain as well. I’ve started both of them, and I’m waiting to see which one captures my heart first. My writing has sort of traveled upward in age with my kids, so who knows, maybe YA is next!
When and where can we get our hands on Annie B., and where can we find you online?
Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us, Amy!
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.