Meet May's Guru: Author Betsy Ellor
What do you LOVE about children’s books?
I love that picture books are like poetry: every word counts and you can do so much with so few words. There are seemingly limitless story ideas and all in such a short format.
What brought you to children’s books?
I’ve been writing stories since I was nine years old. In my twenties I wrote mostly plays and novels. Like many I discovered picture books as a creative form when I started reading them to my son. My Dog Is NOT A Scientist is my debut picture book so it’s fitting that it is entirely inspired by my son and dog. We do tons of science projects in the house and my dog, River, is always nosing her way into them. One day I was talking to my son about the scientific method and realized River was also curious, observative and making guesses which she then tested in her own canine way. The story came together from that. Resilience has also been a big lesson we’ve worked on in our home so that threaded its way into the story without my even really being conscious of it. I’ve loved writing since I was a kid because it helps me observe life and then creatively spin it into new things. This story is a perfect example of that.
Name something you loved / enjoyed as a child.
Exploring. My dad loved taking us to different places. And not just kids places. We’d set out in the car without any real direction and just stop when we saw something interesting. We found an old 5 & Dime store, explored a patch of woods in the middle of corn fields or would just stop and check out the lobby of a new hotel. The places we found weren’t kid-centric but as a kid I thought all of it was the coolest. I loved to read as a child, too, which is really just another type of exploring.
What do you look for in a project that would make it a favorite?
I love a story that has both humor and heart. If it’s a favorite story it’s one I’m going read again and again so it needs to have layers to hook me on the first read but then give me more to discover and enjoy with each time I read it after that.
Share a story that you love and why.
I have so many stories I love, but I was just re-reading Nothing Rhymes with Orange and its so perfect. There’s humor as well as an emotional story, all the characters are vibrant and unique, the use of language is fantastic and you just laugh harder the more times you read it.
What is a common issue you find in manuscripts that don’t work.
One of the most common issues I find is manuscripts I critique is that the main character doesn’t have much character. Not every character has to be a Molly Lou Melon, but every character needs to have their own unique wants and values. They need to have a goal and ability to make choices to achieve that goal. Children are complicated and unique. Sitting down with your manuscript and asking “Who is my character? What do they want? And how are they trying to get it?” will make your manuscript stronger.
Our Rate Your Story 2023 Word of the Year is Professionalism. In terms of becoming a writer, what does this word mean to you?
For me professionalism as a writer means accepting that all the parts of being a writer are your job. Like any job we don’t always love every task we are assigned. It’s easy to get into a negative spiral about the amount of time we spend doing social media or marketing or revising or whatnot but all of that is just part of the job. You may not get control what the illustrations look like. You may need to make changes that are hard. You may spend way too many hours working on your website. All of that is just part of the job of being a writer and on the whole the job is AMAZING. Learn to take the good with the bad and do it all with pride and a positive attitude.
Please share a Revision Tip for our Members.
Do book dummy. No seriously do one! I heard that advice for years and ignored it. When I finally did a dummy so much snapped into place on so many of my stories. Seeing how much text is on a page, working the page turns, seeing what the illustrator would need to do on a page, seeing pacing problems: all these issues and more shake loose when you see the pagination.
Please share a Submission Tip with our Members.
My best advice for submissions is go to any in person events that you can. Most of my successes have stemmed from people I met in person. I met Helen Wu - the publisher at Yeehoo Press- at a conference and that is how I connected to them. If you can’t go to conferences you can still go to smaller local get togethers. Other writers might know just the right agent or editor for your work. I’ve spent plenty of hours on Manuscript Wishlist and QueryTracker researching and submitting that way, but nothing has been more valuable than real human interactions.
Name subjects you would like to read about, or, if you are an Editor or an Agent, see in your in-box.
I’ve been really into learning about medicinal plants lately. That would be a fun topic to see in a picture book. The trick would be writing it in such a way it doesn’t accidentally encourage young readers to start tasting the house plants.
Name subjects you would not like to read about.
I am curious about EVERYTHING so it’s hard to find something I wouldn’t like to read about. 🙂 At the moment I’d love to see more uproarious humor and/or adventure in picture books. Everything I’ve picked up lately has been quiet and powerful and I love those books, but I’m ready for more silly and fun.
Share something you wish we had asked you about, but didn’t!
I’ll share unexpected fact about the book. The amazing illustrator Luisa Vera lives in Barcelona. When they were putting the book together I didn’t like the author photo I had at the time so I used a photo from my last vacation before pandemic instead. It just so happens to have been a trip to Barcelona. So both photos on flap were taken in Barcelona!
Share a fun fact about YOU!
I joined the Peace Corps after college and I was sent to Morocco to train midwives. I ended up getting really sick and coming back after only a few weeks but in those few weeks I learned so much about myself and the world that I’ve never been the same. My retirement plan is to do something like that again.
Bio: Betsy Ellor lives in a house near the beach where curiosity and chaos run wild. She divides her time between seeking out great stories and designing spaces like classrooms, and libraries where others can cultivate their own curiosity. Her previous works include the anthology Heroic Care, and Sara Crewe, a family musical that's been performed across the U.S.