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Member Spotlight: John Sullivan

This month in our Member Spotlight, I'm happy to introduce the prolific Author and Poet John Sullivan! John's first book, Kitten and the Night Watchman, merited both the Margaret Wise Brown and Ezra Jack Keats awards. More awards of note for this book can be found here: Kitten and the Night Watchman | JohnSullivanKidBooks

Lynne Marie: So happy to have you here, John. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from unpublished to published author?

John Sullivan: The journey began in 1984. After earning a degree in English but not finding a job, I decided to make money by writing stories for children. I sent nine manuscripts and a $400 check to a now defunct writing service. They wrote back, enumerating the essential elements of a good story and advising me to throw away all the schlock I had sent them.

Even after I found a job, I yearned to publish a children’s story. I continued to write and send out manuscripts. In time, I worked with a writing coach, Esther Hershenhorn. I'd mail her stories, and we'd meet at Lincoln Park Zoo to discuss them. After about twenty manuscripts, she concluded that the tale about a night watchman and a cat showed the most promise but that I should revise it from a short story into a picture book.

But I didn't have the patience; I just wanted to get something published. I set the account in winter to highlight the snow trucks and mailed it to Ladybug magazine. They sent me my first acceptance letter and published the story in 2007 as "Midnight and the Night Watchman." A few years later, after trying and failing to publish anything else, I returned to the story and rewrote it as a picture book. I altered the setting to summer when the actual encounter with the kitten occurred. Since Ladybug retained all rights to the original story, I forwarded the rewrite to their legal department and requested permission to market it. They determined that the new tale differed substantially from their published version and granted me the right to sell it.

At the Prairie Writer's and Illustrator's Day 2013, I presented the story for a conference critique, and in a stroke of good luck, it went to Sylvie Frank with Paula Wiseman Books at Simon & Schuster. Sylvie believed in the story. She edited the manuscript, convinced her colleagues to back it, and sought the talent of the award-winning artist Taeeun Yoo to illustrate the text. Taeeun breathed life into my words. I want to thank Sylvie and Taeeun for their essential roles in making my dream of becoming an author a reality.

LM: What do you consider to be some of the specific factors to your success? What tips do you have for others who wish to pave a path to publication in children's books?

JS: Self-discipline is vital. Writers must expect rejections and long waits. They must continually compose stories, undergo stringent critiques, and read mentor texts.

Join the SCBWI, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. You'll have access to news concerning conferences, writing classes, workshops, critique groups, and so forth.

Get a good picture book guide like Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. You'll learn the basics of picture book writing, such as the difference between showing and telling and between scenes and narrative summaries.

Don’t expect happiness to come with your debut book. Happiness comes with maturity, decency, and gratitude for the blessings you already have. "There is no path to happiness," as the late Wayne Dyer used to say. "Happiness is the path."

LM: Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you drew upon it to learn the craft of writing?

JS: My main interest in college was lyric poetry. I enrolled in courses conducted by four professors who were first-rate poets: John Frederick Nims, the editor of Poetry magazine; Ralph J. Mills, Jr.; Paul Carroll; and Michael Anania. Still, when I graduated, I couldn't write my way out of a paper bag. What I needed were real-life experiences. After I worked as a warehouseman, mail handler, street laborer, and night watchman, I had those experiences.

Taking home a stray kitten led to Kitten and the Night Watchman; tap dancing in secret led to Stanley's Secret; and trapping, neutering, and returning cats led to Ethan and the Strays.

LM: What was the revision process with Sylvie like at Paula Wiseman Books? What did you learn from it?

JS: The revision process proceeded quickly. I sent Sylvie Frank a 600-word story, and by cutting extraneous material, she reduced the word count to 300. I learned that less is more.

LM: Did you have any say in choosing the illustrator? Have you ever met or spoken with the illustrator for this or any of your books?

JS: I didn’t try to influence the choice of illustrators or the nature of their work. Taeeun Yoo, Zach Manbeck, and Hatem Aly performed commendably without my input. I thanked Taeeun through email and Zach and Hatem through the publisher.

LM: Your second picture book, Stanley's Secret, was published this year by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster. Tell us a little bit about this book and its journey. What did you learn as a result of the experience?

JS: I suffered a long dry spell after my first book. When I began to despair that I would never publish another book, Paula Wiseman bought Ethan and the Strays. Stanley's Secret soon followed. Because Zack finished his illustrations first, Stanley’s Secret appeared first.

Once again, my life experience informs the story. As a night watchman, I periodically tap-danced between rounds to pass the time. Just as Stanley hid his tap dancing from his peers, I hid my tap dancing from my foreman and fellow workers.

What did I learn? I'll quote Fred Astaire: "You have to plug away, keep thinking up new ideas. If one doesn't work, try another."

LM: You have another book forthcoming. Ethan and the Strays. What were the challenges for this book, if any? What inspired it? How did you find a kid-friendly way to teach children about TNR?

JS: The challenges for Ethan and the Strays were essentially the same as for the other books. One difference, however, was that I needed to explain TNR (trap-neuter-return) correctly and include back matter. Fortunately, I had employed the TNR program on various worksites. It’s that experience that inspired the book.

To engage young readers, I depicted the protagonist as a boy working with his older brother to rescue three strays.

LM: Do you have any favorite picture books you'd like to mention?

JS: There are so many excellent picture books! But among those that most touched me—mainly for personal reasons—are Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, by Eileen Spinelli; Country Crossing, by Jim Aylesworth; Lubna and Pebble, by Wendy Meddour; and This is Tap: Savion Glover Finds his Funk, by Selene Castrovilla. My most exhilarating reading experience occurred at ten when I read a Spider-man comic book. For days, I walked around in a trance!

LM: As a career author, what are some of the continuing challenges you face? How do you try to deal with these challenges?

JS: Perhaps someday I’ll consider myself a career author. I'm a retiree lucky enough to have published a few picture books.

Self-discipline is always a challenge. Despite life's distractions—five spoiled cats, quotidian obligations, Chicago crime, arthritic knees, and political insanity—I must write consistently. I don’t feel the day is a waste if I spend at least a few hours writing in the morning,

LM: Share an important resource on your journey.

JS: Mentor texts are essential. Before writers plunge into their stories, they should check out similar stories by other writers.

Another essential resource is a reliable editor like Lynne Marie.

Thank you, John, for your time and honest responses! We are grateful to you for you sharing your enthusiasm for KidLit and your wisdom with us! And I appreciate the kind words! Thank you for inviting me to be on your journey!

Note: Please click on any link to learn more or purchase a book.


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