Kate Coombs writes poetry, middle grade fiction, and picture books for children. She currently teaches college English classes and is studying for a master’s degree to be a Reading Specialist. Kate has taught every grade from kindergarten to college. She is a lifelong bookworm and wrote her first poems in grade school, along with a Nancy Drew knock-off and short plays starring herself. Kate’s poetry collection Water Sings Blue won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award in 2012. She has written poetry about the ocean, mindfulness, and monster kids, as well as picture books ranging from fairy tale retellings to a kid who takes on the Tooth Fairy and middle grade fantasy books that play with fairy tale tropes. Kate is a great believer in revision, fairy tales, Christmas songs, and chocolate, not necessarily in that order. Her favorite authors are Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, and poet Billy Collins. Kate plants a little garden on her balcony each summer, well out of reach of the deer. She has taken hundreds of pictures of clouds and belongs to the Cloud Appreciation Society.
From bookworm to children's book author!
I used to read constantly. I once tried to read, ride a bike, and carry a clarinet case and an open-faced sandwich while going to school. It ended badly. I also remember hiding out so I could read instead of doing household chores, and I would stay up late at night finishing my book, too. When I tried to read with a flashlight under the covers, my little sister ratted me out. Then I realized that if I got up to go to the bathroom late at night, my parents didn't notice if I didn't come back to bed for hours. It worked!
When you ask a real book lover, "What's your favorite book?" you are likely to get a baffled look. Readers usually can't tell you just one favorite, and they're hard-pressed to limit their list to 5 or 6. But looking back, I remember liking a couple of obscure middle-grade fantasies: Taash and the Jesters by Ellen Kindt McKenzie and The Wicked Enchantment by Margot Benary-Isbert. Plus some wonderful classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, of course! And hundreds more.
Make books a happy, everyday part of your children's lives. My parents read to us every night before bed and took us to the library once a week for years. It turned us into avid readers. Kids love to be read to, often even when they're older. My mom used to read the James Herriot books to my teenage sisters at the breakfast table after I left for college. My parents also read a lot themselves, which I realized years later as a teacher was good modeling! My mom is in her 80s now and belongs to two book clubs.
It's actually even harder now than it used to be to sell a book because most publishers only look at work from agents, so you have to get an agent first. When I was getting started, I sent stories directly to various publishers who were looking for treasures in the slush pile. Like most people trying to be published, it took me years to make my first sale. I was writing literary fairy tales and had created a collection of 10 stories. I heard an invitation for submissions from a publisher at an SCBWI writing conference and sent her an odd little story. She ended up asking for the fairy tale collection, then choosing just one of the stories and making it into a picture book. Unfortunately, the publication date was delayed repeatedly and the illustrator needed extra time, so the book wasn't published till six years after the sale! That was a shock, but the book did finally come out and I was thrilled: It was The Secret Keeper from Atheneum (2006).
A lot of people think it must be easier to write a children's book than a book for grownups because they're shorter, especially picture books, or because children seem like an undiscriminating audience. Not true! It's as hard to write a good picture book as to write a good poem, or even harder. Every word counts, and the concept must be terrific. Then, even if you have great ideas and a whole lot of practice under your belt, you may not sell a book. What I suggest is that you read a ton of children's books and write a whole lot, too. Keep in mind that revision is the name of the game. It's also helpful to join SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators).
I love all my book babies, but there's a special place in my heart for The Tooth Fairy Wars. For one thing, it's a slam-bang read-aloud. And apparently dentists like it! It's also the only book I've ever written based on a real-life experience, though I promptly took it into the realm of fantasy. My 5-year-old nephew was horrified when he lost his first tooth, and he was not appeased by being told the Tooth Fairy would come get his tooth in the night and leave him cash. "But I want to keep it forever!" he cried. When I heard that, I had my story—plus a mental picture of T. Fairy as a little bureaucrat in a three-piece suit, carrying a briefcase. (Illustrator Jake Parker's Tooth Fairy is terrific!)
As of this writing, I'm looking forward to the publication of four board books in the spring of 2019, part of two new lines in the BabyLit series from Gibbs Smith. I'm doing Little Poets Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare, and Little Naturalists John Muir and John James Audubon to start things off. Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau will be out at the end of the year, so that's two more books.