Six Questions with Susan Johnston Taylor
Writing has been Susan Johnston Taylor’s passion since age nine, when she won honorable mention in a Cricket magazine contest for her compelling account of a female stowaway on a pirate ship. She now divides her time between freelance writing and creating books for young readers. Themes of kindness and curiosity run throughout her writing for kids. The Austin, Texas,-based writer’s nonfiction articles for young readers have appeared in magazines including Cicada, Dramatics, FACES, Highlights for Children, and Scout Life. Her picture book debut, Animals in Surprising Shades: Poems About Earth’s Colorful Creatures, released this spring from Gnome Road Publishing. Visit Susan’s website to learn more about her and her writing.
1. Do you ever struggle to come up with your next project? Or do you have lots of ideas and find it a challenge to narrow down your ideas?
I have loads of ideas, so my challenge is finding the best way to execute on those ideas. There are so many wonderful children’s books already published on a myriad of subjects, so manuscripts can’t just be informative or sweet. It needs some clever twist or inventive storytelling. I’m drawn to big, audacious ideas that tend to be quirky and non-traditional, so I spend a lot of time experimenting with structure and trying to find the right voice and approach for each project.
2. Did you have a favorite teacher when you were a child? What made them so special?
Mrs. Giagrandre (or Mrs. G for short) was my first-grade teacher. I was a precocious, often boisterous kid at a time when little girls were expected to be sweet and docile (unfortunately, some people still expect that). That frustrated several of my elementary school teachers, who said I was too chatty or bossy or spunky. (Ugh!)
But if Mrs. G. felt that way, she rarely showed it. She channeled my energy into projects like starring as the Queen of Hearts in our class production of Alice in Wonderland. Mrs. G also introduced me to Sybil Ludington, a teen heroine of the American Revolution and later the subject of my first work-for-hire book Ride Across Time.
3. Do you work on multiple projects at the same time?
Yes, I’m a member of the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge, so I try to balance writing new manuscripts with revising older projects and querying projects that have been polished through workshopping and revision.
At the moment, I’m polishing a picture book biography, revising another PB bio plus another poetry collection and a historical fiction picture book. I’m also querying with several other projects. I also have a middle-grade nonfiction proposal that I plan to revise later this year. Many projects may never get published regardless of how many times we revise and polish them, so I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket and get too emotionally invested in a single project. Still, we can learn something from everything we write, even if it never becomes a book.
4. Was Animals in Surprising Shades: Poems About Earth’s Colorful Creatures always the title for this project?
No, the original title was “Colorful Critters: Poems About Animals in Surprising Shades.” I liked the word “creatures” better than “critters,” because to me, “critters” connotes small animals like insects. But at the time, I had another project with “creatures” in the title, and I didn’t want my titles to be too similar.
I later renamed the other project, so when I started querying, the title was “Colorful Creatures: Poems About Animals in Surprising Shades.” My deal announcement had that title, but when my editor talked to a marketing person, they suggested renaming my book to Animals in Surprising Shades: Poems About Earth’s Colorful Creatures. I like that title even more, so we went with that!
5. What was the process or timeline for this book, from idea to publishing?
January 2020: Inspiration hit in late January 2020. I was visiting Chicago on a weekend trip about a month before Covid-19 shut everything down.
February 2020: Started drafting. Finishing the poetry collection became my pandemic project.
May 2020: After lots of virtual critiques, I started querying!
June 2020: I got a revise & resubmit from an agent*, so I stopped querying that project and focused on revision for the next several months.
*She liked one of the poems and said they all needed that level of surprise and wonder. Instead of revising the existing poems, I tossed out most of them and started over with different animals that I felt could deliver more surprise and wonder.
September 2020: After lots of revisions, workshopping, and a professional critique, I sent the revised manuscript back to the agent. No response, so I sent it to several more agents.
December 2020: I kept hearing from agents that they loved the writing but were uncertain about selling another poetry collection, so my critique group encouraged me to submit directly to editors. I decided that if I didn’t sign with an agent by the new year, I’d shift my focus to editors and sell it myself. On December 30, an agent requested more manuscripts!
February 2021: Still no response from the agents, but Gnome Road Publishing had an open call for submissions, so I submitted to them and several more publishers.
March 2021: Gnome Road Publishing made an offer! I followed up with the agents and ultimately signed the contract on my own.
March 28, 2023: Animals in Surprising Shades: Poems About Earth’s Colorful Creatures releases into the world!
6. Did you have a lot of collaboration with the illustrator?
I’d seen illustrator Annie Bakst’s beautiful artwork on social media, so I suggested her to my editor, but I didn’t collaborate with her, which I hear is pretty common.