The Back Story

My first published book as an illustrator, A Moose in a Maple Tree, was copied by Scholastic. Ironically, this is what truly kickstarted my publishing career.

My first published book as an illustrator, A Moose in a Maple Tree, was copied by Scholastic. Ironically, this is what truly kickstarted my publishing career.

Ever since I got into children’s publishing in 2007, I have been inundated with questions from curious folks who seem fascinated by what I am doing and who want to do the same thing. It is astonishing how often people ask me, once they hear what I do, ‘How did you get into that? I have a GREAT idea for a children’s book myself…’ or, ‘I’ve always wanted to write my own children’s book, any advice?’ 

The short answer is that there isn’t one.

It’s a tough game, and one that I am still learning to navigate every day.

In the interest of sharing my experiences with more people,  I have decided to keep a regular diary of my experiences building Eco Books 4 Kids, writing Spirit Bear, and launching and promoting the book. It’s been a crazy ride so far, and I think it’s going to get a whole lot more interesting, so I may as well share it with you. But first I guess I should explain how it all really started.

People always ask me, why children’s books? Did I go to school for this? Take a course?

The answer is no. As long as I can remember, I have been writing stories in my head. On my walk home from elementary school I’d be creating stories about mermaids, fairies and elves and talking to myself like a crazy person. In the summertime my brother and I would play in the woods near our house, and make up fantasies about witches, warriors, dinosaurs and dragons which we acted out in a series of vignettes with various friends. A girlfriend and I created an entire alternate universe populated with alien beings that we wrote elaborate stories around. I once wrote a play about a purse-snatcher while mucking about with some friends in my basement that we wound up performing in front of the entire school a few months later. I just loved making stuff up.

I think I got through school essentially because I had great writing skills. I wasn’t particularly gifted in any other subjects, with the exception of art, (and biology, only because I adored it and worked at it furiously), but it’s incredible how the ability to spell, conjugate and whip out a decent essay in a single evening can get you through almost any subject. My tendency towards ADHD prevented me from becoming a true scholar, but I had the ability to cram and regurgitate, which sadly works in our educational system, so that someone like myself can coast through school on A’s and B’s without actually truly learning or retaining much at all. Pair that with great writing skills, and you can look darned smart. I assure you this is in no way the case.

At any rate, after an ill-fated decision to pursue a BA in Anthropology, (with a minor in Environmental Studies, my true passion), I eventually stumbled into graphic design, one of the few industries where artistic types can earn a reasonable and stable living. I did this for 12 years and never loved it, often hated it. Always I had children’s books in the back of my mind, but it seemed like a pipe dream. Doesn’t everyone want to write a children’s book? Turns out, they do. Why should my work be worthy of print?

So I scribbled ideas, sketched characters, wrote rhyming couplets. I have notes all over my apartment for numerous book ideas that I think have merit. I completed one, a rhyming tongue-twister about a selfish shellfish that I have always meant to illustrate and shop around, but I found it incredibly difficult to believe that my own ideas could really be truly valued by others. So I kept them stored away, nicely warm toasty on my great big back burner.

Then came Troy. I met him and his finance in London England where I lived for a couple of years on a working visa. Awesome people. We kept in touch over the years, and he knew I liked to draw. He told me he wanted to write children’s books and that he’d like me to illustrate for him. I said ‘Sure Troy, sure.’ Didn’t everybody say they wanted to do that? I figured it would never happen.

Troy was an Aussie, so when he and Cheryl-Lynn finally returned to Canada and wed, he was forced to live as her dependent for a year before he was able to take paid work in the country. That’s how we treat our Commonwealth immigrants in Canada.

This turned out to be a good thing for Troy, though, as he now had the time freed up to work on his dream of publishing. He decided to compile a book of recipes made with wine from BC wineries, complete with beautiful full-colour photos of the dishes featured. Very clever, the wineries supplied the the recipes and the photos, happy to get a bit of free PR. Everyone likes wine and food, and the book took off. Soon he had a series and a nice little publishing company called Polyglot.

Troy's first book was a hit, and signalled the birth of Polyglot, the publishing company that would produce my first book series.

Troy’s first book was a hit, and signalled the birth of Polyglot, the publishing
company that would produce my first illustrated book series.

That’s when he approached me to draw for him. I was amazed and thrilled – this was actually HAPPENING!!! I took to the job with relish. I had an older laptop and little free time, and the advance he gave me was enough to support me for exactly two weeks, but I didn’t mind. I was going to be a children’s book illustrator!!!

Many months of hard work later, we had a little paperback on the shelves called A Moose in a Maple Tree. I was never truly pleased (artists never are) with my illustrations, as I felt I hadn’t had the time or technology to make the effort I would have liked. So for three years Troy promoted the book on his own, working trade shows, calling up independent book stores and begging them to stock us, and working with Sandhill, our distributor, to get us into Chapters and Indigo among other places. I sat back and accepted the royalties, but that was the extent of my involvement.

He did great,  our book immediately received a thumbs up from Don Cherry. Story-telling legend Robert Munsch called it a “wonderful book” and CM Magazine gave it 4/4 stars. It has been at the top of the BC best-sellers list every Christmas since it’s release.

I would receive a small cheque every Christmas, the largest of which equalled just over $2000. Not exactly money you can live on, but a nice little bonus for doing nothing, and you get to say you have a book published.

Then came the Scholastic debacle. Troy had sent our book to them twice, once to see if they’d publish us, then a second time to see if they were interested in distributing. Both times he received a firm ‘no thanks.’ But then in October 2010, Scholastic  published  A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, a book with some pretty incredible similarities to ours. We were dumbfounded. It was ANOTHER 12 Days of Canadian Christmas.  With beavers, moose, maple leaves, mounties and even sled dogs. Our 5 hockey sticks were replaced with 5 Stanley Cups.

But the kicker for me was the ending. When Troy wrote the book, the final page was simply meant to be a repeat of the first, a moose sitting in a maple tree. Funny, right? But I thought it sounded like all of these other creatures were being added to the tree as well–whales, polar bears, lobsters, mounties, totem poles… a big crazy jumble of Canadian animals and icons, all up in this maple tree with the moose. It turned out to be a great idea and made the ending infinitely funnier. Guess who else thought it was funny and did the same thing? Scholastic. I was hurt.

Of course Troy questioned them, and they tiptoed around the truth, claiming lack of awareness of our book (despite having  it sent to them twice), then changing their story and claiming they did know about us before they went to press, but it was just a coincidence, they had magically come up with the EXACT same idea, with the same ingredients and ending. Parallel creativity. Only ours came out three years earlier.  And we sent it to them. Twice.

At any rate, fighting a monster like Scholastic would be like fighting city hall and would just make us look bad (it’s children’s books, right? Canadian CHRISTMAS children’s books to be exact). Scholastic knew this, of course–how else could they justify such a blatant theft? Canadian copyright laws favour  loopholes, so we fell right through one.

The silver lining, after the initial outrage, was that WE GOT COPIED!!! By SCHOLASTIC!!! The concept was good!!! And the Porcupine was selling like hotcakes, it was a runaway national best-seller! Imagine what we could have done with Scholastic’s money and distribution power. But all we had was Troy and his one-man publishing show and our little West-coast distributor Sandhill.

The similarities between our book and Scholastic's were impossible to ignore. But in the end, it only gave us added faith in our own product.

The similarities between our book and Scholastic’s were impossible to ignore.
But in the end, it only gave us added faith in our own product.

But this was still good news.

Troy approached me to update MIAMT’s illustrations and release two more he had written, The Night Before a Canadian Christmas and Canadian Jingle Bells, all of which would be released in hard-cover. The same month he asked for my help, I got laid off from my job. It was fate. I was living with a boyfriend at the time, and being a creative type himself, he offered to support me while I worked on the books, so that I could get a new career started. I hate to say it, but that’s essentially what it takes. You need money or a supportive partner in order to put in the time necessary to do something truly substantial. I’m not saying you can’t chip away at it in your spare time and make it work, but it will take much longer and be far more difficult.

[As an aside, I would just like to say that I am eternally grateful to Michael Arnott for the support he gave me that year to create and then promote my book series. A bit of freelance work helped to keep me afloat, but without his support I could never have produced the results that I did. And though we are no longer a couple, we remain the best of friends, and I have pledged to do the same for him–to help him to get a leg-up with his creative work so that he can quit his day job as an art director at a children’s toy company. He is the illustrator of my new book Spirit Bear, and I plan to create a series of books with him that I hope to have success with so we can both ultimately pursue our dreams of leading truly creative lives.]

So I drew for the next six months. I brought MIAMT to a level I was finally pleased with, and created two new books for a three-book series. AND Troy put together a 12-song compilation CD with the songs from our books, plus 9 other Christmas songs by Canadian artists. Now we really had something.

That Christmas, we were back with a vengeance. And now that I knew our book had value and I felt better about my final product, I wanted to be a part of promoting it. I sold the book at tradeshows, did Christmas concerts in schools, contacted media, got us reviews and pr in newspapers and magazines. I even managed to get a spot on CTV Morning Live in Saskatoon, and leveraged that appearance into getting our books onto the shelves of all the Indigo and Coles stores in the city. It was fantastic.

Books

Our new series boasts three hard-cover books, plus a Christmas compilation CD.
All uniquely Canadian.

We cracked the top ten nationally with two of our titles, and MIAMT clocked in at No. 5, hot on the heels of Porcupine in a Pine Tree’s No.1 ranking. That Christmas I made $10,000. Suddenly this was looking like more of a THING. If only I had more books under my belt to promote year round, then I’d really be cooking with gas.

And that was when I came up with the idea for Spirit Bear.

Next blog:

Getting Inspired.

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About jensera

Jennifer Harrington is a Toronto-based illustrator, writer and graphic designer. She illustrated the best-selling children’s book series 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' which includes the titles 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' 'The Night Before a Canadian Christmas' and 'Canadian Jingle Bells.' She is also the owner of JSH Graphics, a boutique graphic design agency that specializes in print and web advertising. With her latest project, Eco Books 4 Kids, Jennifer has partnered with illustrator Michael Arnott to create a series of ecologically-themed ebooks for children. Her next book, 'Spirit Bear,' is due for release in the Summer of 2013. Jennifer offers two different school presentations for her 'Moose in a Maple Tree' collection, an illustration demonstration and a Christmas concert series, which can be booked at www.amooseinamapletree.com. She will be taking bookings for school readings of 'Spirit Bear' beginning in October 2013.

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