Meet the Author: Sue Lowell Gallion

Wednesday, Dec 7, 2016
Tagged As: interview
Sue Lowell Gallion Headshot

Sue Lowell Gallion has recently celebrated the publication of her first book, Pug Meets Pig, a picture book illustrated by Joyce Wan. A sequel is already on the way. We asked Sue a few questions to learn more about who she is, her journey to publication, her thoughts on being an author, and her plans for the future.

Tell us about Pug Meets Pig. What is it about, what inspired it, and what was its path to publication?

Pug Meets Pig is a story about change. Pug’s happy home life disappears when Pig arrives. She disrupts his world in every way, whether she’s eating out of his bowl or making friends with the neighborhood cat. A new doggy door gives Pug an escape, but he still has to face Pig (very literally, since Pig gets stuck in his doggy door!).

The inspiration for Pug Meets Pig came from a story a friend told me during our water aerobics class. I liked the sound of “pug” and “pig” together, and the image in my mind of two round characters with curly tails made me laugh. You never know where an idea for a picture book might come from!

The book’s path to publication was paved with rejection e-mails over several years, and I kept revising the manuscript along the way. My favorite rejection letter came in the mail a year after the manuscript had sold.

Your biography at your website mentions that Pug Meets Pig won the Most Promising Picture Book award in 2013 from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. How much did that manuscript change on its way to its current, published form?

Daniel Miyares, another Johnson County author/illustrator, calls picture book making a team sport. It’s a great analogy. Here’s how it works in traditional publishing. After buying the manuscript, the editor and art director contract with an illustrator who they feel is the right fit for that story. They give the plain text to the illustrator.

Then the illustrator brings the text to life visually in collaboration with the art director and editor. I did get to see several versions of Pug Meets Pig along the way, which was fascinating. The two halves of the book--text and pictures--came together through the magic of the editing process. It made the book better and better.

It’s amazing how every detail is a decision in picture book making. The main way the manuscript changed was in length--it became about a hundred words shorter. With the illustrations, some words or sentences weren’t needed anymore.

Tell us about your path to becoming a writer: when did you decide to pursue that career, what steps did you take to get there, what detours and obstacles did you face, when did you feel like you’d "become" a writer, and the like?

I wrote my first book in grade school at Trailwood Elementary. My mom saved it. It’s either an illustrated chapter book or an extremely long picture book! The plot of "A Family of Beavers" is Little House in the Big Woods meets Charlotte’s Web meets Bambi. I think I chose beavers as characters because I thought they were easy to draw with one round blob for the body and an oblong tail. I’ve stuck to words since then.

I majored in journalism at SMU in Dallas and worked in public relations, so I was involved in writing all along. When I had kids, I fell in love with children’s books all over again. As I volunteered in the school library and classrooms at Mission Trail Elementary, I started thinking about changing career directions to library science or education. After I took a class in children’s literature at Johnson County Community College, I started working on the craft of writing picture books. That was about 10 years ago.

If you haven’t browsed the new picture book sections of a library or bookstore, you’ll be amazed. We’re in a new Golden Age of picture books that are meaningful to both children and adults. I love many of the old classics, but don’t miss what’s new or has

Why picture books?

Picture books are an amazing way to connect with kids. My love for books and reading began as I sat on the laps of my parents and grandparents and listened to them read aloud. Books expanded my world and continue to do so.

If you haven’t browsed the new picture book sections of a library or bookstore, you’ll be amazed. We’re in a new Golden Age of picture books that are meaningful to both children and adults. I love many of the old classics, but don’t miss what’s new or has been published in the last five or so years.

There are wonderful nonfiction picture books today, also. I really appreciate that the youth sections of our Johnson County Libraries display newer books together. It makes it easy to see what’s just come out.

So many newer picture books also are being produced as board books, too. No diaper bag or car seat should be without some old and new board book favorites.

Picture books have a specific set of limitations such as length, vocabulary, and format and illustration considerations. What is it like to write with these limits?

Writing a picture book is a lot like solving a puzzle. Today’s picture books are rarely more than 500 words long, so every word has to matter and add to the story. As far as vocabulary, finding the perfect word is part of the joy of writing picture books. Books expand a child’s vocabulary. Picture book language doesn’t have to be restricted to easy words that are part of a young child’s vocabulary. They will understand the context of new words within the story and the illustrations.

One of the biggest differences between writing a picture book and a novel is the physical format of the picture book. One of my editors, Allyn Johnston, of Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, compares reading a picture book aloud to a theater performance. The reader and listener must want to turn the page to see what happens next. The writer is creating small scenes and language that flows when it is read aloud. Pacing is really important. The story also must be rich in illustration possibilities, and leave lots of opportunity for the illustrator to create his or her own half of the story.

One of the questions I get asked most is if the characters in the book turned out as I intended them to look. The short answer is that my mental picture of what Pug and Pig or their world might look like didn’t matter. In traditional children’s publishing, the author doesn’t give any direction at all to the illustrator, and usually has no direct contact with the illustrator until the book is finished. The illustrator is bringing his or her own vision and creativity to the project. The overall direction, guidance, and decision-making are in the hands of the editor and the art director. I’m thrilled with the end result. The process really works.

What else have you written beside this book? What else to you hope to write (or get published) in the future?

A second Pug and Pig book, Pug & Pig Trick or Treat, is coming out late next summer, just in time for Halloween! I’m working on new manuscripts, both picture books and young chapter books, and revising others, plus keeping my fingers crossed for the next book to sell. I’d like to write some nonfiction picture books in the next few years and maybe a middle grade novel.

Book cover

What do you like most about being a writer?

Seeing kids respond to Pug Meets Pig has been an absolute delight. It really wasn’t until the book was published that I felt like I’d become a "real" author. I do love playing with words and story. And I have met many incredible and inspiring people along the way.

What do you like least about being a writer?

The waiting. It was three years from when I sold the first Pug and Pig manuscript to when the book came out, and that isn’t long in picture book publishing! Also, children’s publishing is a business. A book has to be marketable as well as good, and it has to land in the right spot at the right time. It’s a far more complex industry than I realized going in.

What advice would you offer other writers about the writing process and the publication process?

Take the craft of writing for children seriously. Don’t assume that something short is easy to write. Study, write, and read, read, read. When I heard Linda Sue Park speak some years ago, she encouraged writers to read a thousand books published within the last five years in the genre they wanted to write in as a starting point. If you are interested in writing picture books, read tons of current picture books, and always read them out loud.

A great organization for people interested in this business is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). We have an active Kansas City community of children’s authors and illustrators at all stages of their careers. You can find out more at scbwi.org.

Marketing the book is an important part of the author’s role, too. One of the ways readers can help an author with that is by rating a book on Goodreads or Amazon, or writing a brief review on either of those sites. The publishing houses pay attention to those things.

What role have libraries played in your life (as both reader and a writer)?

I grew up in Overland Park, and my mom took my sister and me to the Corinth branch every Thursday, the same day she went to the grocery store. We could each check out three books; I don’t know if that was the library’s rule or Mom’s!

As a writer, I’m so fortunate to have such an extensive local library system. I have author friends who live in remote areas and don’t have much access to the books being published today. I request titles through the on-line system all the time, and I really appreciate the staff and volunteers who make that possible.

What’s your all-time favorite picture book?

There’s no way to pick just one, but a current favorite of mine is You Nest Here with Me, by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. It’s a wonderful story of family, nature, and the importance of belonging. The language and illustrations are simply beautiful.

I did a storytime at the Leawood Pioneer branch a few weeks ago, and I put together a list of some of my favorite picture books to read aloud published in 2015 and 2016. I also am on Goodreads and I keep adding there to my shelves of favorites.

You can learn more about Gallion, her books, and how to follow her at suegallion.com.