We are excited to have author and illustrator Mr. Mike with us to talk about writing for children. Mr. Mike is the author of ’Swimming in Chocolate’, ’Lemon Drop Rain’, ’Over the Top’, and ’New Pet’.
Thank you for joining us a WinR. How did you get into writing for children?
I’ve been writing for fun since I was a kid. Starting in about the 5th grade, I was writing short one-page stories, like lots of kids do. By the time I was about thirteen years old I started writing poetry. Flash forward to adulthood when I worked at an elementary school. Often the kids would ask me if I was ever going to write a book and I always said, ‘no.’ But after a while, teachers and parents chimed in… so I finally realized that maybe I should take a whack at it. The kids called me ‘Mr. Mike’ so, I figured that’d be a good pen name. They helped me pick out the poems for my first book and I titled it ‘Swimming in Chocolate’ after a memory of a visit to a chocolate factory. It was really just for fun and I never thought seriously about ‘becoming an author’ or getting into publishing. Fun – that was the point. I was pretty easy to please too. When we printed the first run of about 4000 books, I told myself that I’d be happy if only one kid liked it. They were all gone within a few months.
You write both poetry and fiction. Do you find that children respond more enthusiastically to one or the other?
Well, I haven’t published my fiction yet. I’m working on several projects at the same time right now including a spooky chapter book series, a mystery story that might evolve into a short series as well as constantly writing new poetry that will emerge as individual books like New Pet or an additional compilation. Eventually, one project will dominate over the others and that will be the next thing to be published. I have found that children respond to all my writing with enthusiasm. How people respond to one’s writing really depends not only on the writing, but how it’s presented and the impression the reader has of the writer. I hope that children will be as excited about what I write in the years to come as they have been in the past – ‘cause I sure am!
As your own illustrator, do you think about illustrations while you write, or do you come up with illustrations first and write the poetry or fiction around the images?
I always write first. It can take years before I have a clear idea of how I want an illustration or character to look. For example, I finished writing a story called ‘Big Day’ several years ago, but I still haven’t nailed the look of the main character yet… so that means – no book yet! I ended up putting together another 150 or so poems on 180+ pages with as many illustrations in ‘Over the Top’ instead! Who would’ve thought! While writing though, I do make little sketches to remind myself of the image I have in my mind at the time. So, it’s not like I don’t think about the illustrations at all. I just don’t seriously get into the drawing aspect until the writing is done. It takes about 1 month for my brain to rest from writing and transition into illustrating mode. I can do them both – just not at the same time.
You market extensively through school assemblies. How did you get into making presentations to schools, and do you find that teachers and administrators are enthusiastic about having an author speak to their students?
Teachers and administrators are VERY enthusiastic about having an author visit their school. In fact, many of the schools I visit have either never had an author visit before or haven’t had one in many years. It’s a big deal. My presentations are not only lots of fun, but also educational. Part of the goal is to give them such a good experience that they’ll invite more authors to their school! There are also many schools that try to have and author visit every year and some schools even participate in district-wide author’s days. These schools are very familiar with hosting authors and often have solid writing programs to go along with it.
I first started making presentations to schools after ‘Swimming in Chocolate’ came out over ten years ago. Someone from a local school saw the write up in the newspaper and called to see if I’d do a classroom visit. When I got home, there was a message on my machine asking me to come back to do an event for the whole school! Things just kind of mushroomed after that and haven’t slowed down since! I visit about 50 schools each year and I have a blast doing it!
Beetlebugbooks.com contains a lot of information about how your assemblies work, but your target market may not know about your website. How do you get the word out that you’re available as a speaker?
We do a direct mailing once each year and the schedule is usually fully booked within a month or two. A lot of requests come in via word-of-mouth as well. I have had the luxury of not having to aggressively promote and over-market in order to be successful at what I do. My focus is on writing… slow but sure… I will not allow myself to be a flash in the pan and I don’t mind my popularity growing at a reasonable rate over the course of many years. So, I’m in no rush to try to maintain a constant presence everywhere. We may look at getting onto a few of the sites that showcase authors and illustrators as speakers, but there hasn’t really been any big rush to do that since I stay so busy as it is.
I had a teacher say that she didn’t like “marketing “to the kids, which is how she saw sending them home with a book order form. Do you run into this attitude a lot? And what would you tell this teacher?
I’d gently remind the teacher that when an author visits her school, she should expect to have a book sale since that’s what any author will expect. Schools usually send home fliers since that’s their standard method of getting information home. A good majority of my visits to public schools are free and book sales are always part of the event. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve ever done an appearance without doing a book sale – that what authors do – it would be strange not to.
We really don’t run into this attitude at all since we make it very clear up front that when Mr. Mike visits a school, he’ll be signing books. Most schools can make a distinction between inviting the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee to do a ‘presentation’ and a children’s author promoting literacy.
When I first started doing school visits over ten years ago, we didn’t’ have things as organized as we do now. I was so new to being ‘an author’. Teachers would come up to me saying, “Don’t you have a flier or something we can use to order books?” and “You should really do a presale because the kids love your books and we always do a book sale.” It became very obvious very quickly that folks want to buy books and they already had expectations for how to it. They use fliers, their website and other means to promote the event. This is perfectly appropriate and what any author and school should expect when planning a visit. And the students love it. Most of them have never had a book signed by an author. I never did when I was kid. So, that’s pretty cool.
You self-publish your books through Beetle Bug Books. Why did you choose this route, and what advantages have you found?
I chose this route because I knew three people who all had book deals during the time I finished ‘Swimming in Chocolate’. They were all having trouble with their publishers. I remember thinking to myself, “This isn’t what I signed up for. I just want to publish my book the way I envision it.” I wasn’t ready to have a publisher tell me what I could and couldn’t do. I decided I’d rather take the energy that might have been spent going ‘round and ‘round with a publisher and put it into starting my own publishing company. I’d take responsibility for what works and what doesn’t work and have fun while doing it! I’ve never regretted it. The advantages are that I can do what I want when I want. I can take an idea out of thin air and see it all the way through to the real world without any interruption from someone who had something other than my vision in mind. I don’t have to say, “Oh, the cover looks like that because my publisher…” or “I don’t really like the artwork, but my publisher wouldn’t even look at the art I had in mind.” Any writer or illustrator out there knows exactly what I’m talking about. As time rolls on though, I have become so busy that I might have to find a publisher for some of my other projects. If I do, my experience with Beetle Bug Books will be an asset.
Your web site includes great information for children about the writing and illustrating processes. Is this the goal of your presentations? To teach kids about the writing process?
Yes, it’s part of it. My goal is not only to bring the writing and illustrating to life, but also bring the writer and illustrator to life. It’s not unusual for a school library to have around 14,000 books. I think it’s important for kids to know that real people are behind every single one of them. I never met an author when I was a kid so it took me longer to realize that being an author and/or illustrator is actually something someone can do for a living! The other big part of this is to reinforce what’s going on in the school. You’ve got lots of teachers out there teaching their students to look over their work, make corrections and write it again. I’m the professional writer who comes in and says, “Yeah, what your teacher is teaching you is right! Take a look at all my rewrites… see how long this took!” All the students write poems prior to my visit. We call it the ‘Mr. Mike Poetry Challenge’. After having just been through the writing process themselves my presentation is even more relevant and meaningful because we’re on the same level – we’re all writers!
Mr. Mike is on twitter! Do you find that your target audience—elementary aged children—are tweeting in large numbers? Or do you tweet mainly to parents and teachers?
Oh, gosh – I really hope they’re NOT Tweeting in large numbers! You know, I’m really on the fence about Twitter and all those social networking kinds of things. We have a few pages in the works for most of the sites, but haven’t gone live due to my reservations. My biggest issue with all this is that one, it only encourages people to spend more time sitting in front of the computer or staring at their little gadget and two, it’s too interconnected and way too easy to be hop scotching into areas and connecting with people you don’t know. I’m sure elementary aged children are up to a lot more than I’m aware of judging by all the phones and gadgets I see them carrying around – and sometimes looking at while I’m doing a reading! Real people in front of you are (supposed to be) a lot more interesting than looking at a little screen.
I just got on Twitter a few days ago and don’t plan to be reporting on every detail of my life. In fact, I’ll probably ‘tweet’ rather infrequently – we’ll see. Honestly, it hardly occurs to me at any point during the day to ‘tweet’ since I’m so busy writing and doing other more important things. I heard an interview of the CEO of Twitter not too long ago. He said something like, “People can tweet as much or as little as they want. Some people tweet 150 times a day,,, and others only 50 times a day.” Wow. That blew me away. My limited presence on Twitter is not intended to be specifically for elementary aged children, however the minimal content will always be appropriate for all ages. I’m not really interested in collecting any kind of massive following and if it turns out to not be too interesting – I’ll ditch it.
I understand that you are currently working on the retelling of a fairy tale. Can you tell us anything about this book?
Yes, it’s a retelling of Jack and Beanstalk. The writing is done. I’m in the process of story boarding general sketches of the illustrations, which are not done yet. It’s a new way of working for me, but I want this book to have a different feel. So, basically if you could see it right now, it would look like a bunch of papers with very crudely done sketches that mostly emphasize the reader’s visual perspective… kind of like laying out the specific camera shots in a movie, for example. I’m almost to the point where I can mentally visualize the finished book in my hands. When I can ‘feel’ the book in my hands, I know I’m kind of ‘over the hump’ in its development.
Thank you, Mr. Mike, for a great interview.
You can reach Mr. Mike through his web site at Beetle Bug Books where you can order his books, book him for a school visit, or simply explore an informative, fun site. You can also order his books on Amazon.