Wednesday, August 13, 2014

10 Questions (+) For Barb Rosenstock (by Todd Burleson)

Today's post is an interview I recently conducted with Barb Rosenstock.  Barb has written some of the most interesting non-fiction for children in the world!  She graciously shared her answers to the GROG members terrific questions:
1. What resources--online, museum, library, etc. have you found most helpful for your projects? 
Although I start online and pretty often wind up at museums or libraries, I’ve got to pick PEOPLE as the most helpful resource for my projects. There are literally millions of people who are experts and interested in historical topics WAY beyond my knowledge base, find the right one for the right book and that’s the best resource.

2. Do you work on one book at a time? Or more than one? 
One at a time with a running list of reading for the next one or two…sometimes I’m not working on anything, I’m learning to roll with it. I know the advice, but I DO NOT write every day.

3. What books did you devour as a kiddo? 
The Betsy Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace is my absolute favorite. I loved reading historical fiction even very young, if it was set in another time, I read it…Little House on the Prairie, Ballet Shoes/Theatre Shoes, The All of a Kind Family, the Five Little Peppers. Obviously, I am very, very old. I do remember liking Judy Blume and whoever wrote Harriet the Spy, too.

4. Do you share your research with the illustrator, or does the illustrator just start from scratch? 
They start from scratch but every once in a while questions go back and forth about a detail or two (or twenty!) between the editor, author and illustrator. 

5. How long had you been writing until you became published? How long did it take to get an agent/editor?  
I started noodling around writing for children in 2005 or 6, sold my first picture book in mid-2007. The editor of my first picture book recommended a short list of agents to me, I emailed them and the wonderful Rosemary Stimola picked me up. My first three picture books were slush pile babies, no agent.  I never really thought of being a writer until I fell in love with picture books, but I spent a lot of years working in marketing/advertising creative departments, learning to edit, change, rework with a tough skin and tight deadlines…that helped the process to published author go faster than is typical I think.

6. How do you know when you've done enough research? What back matter is most important to you as a writer? 
When I’m bored, when I know the story and I’m just procrastinating writing it down or working on it…and back matter is always a problem for me, my first drafts of them tend to be WAY too long…at some point (sometimes after I have a contract) I kind of try to pick a theme for the back matter and stick with it, people can read on the internet if they really need a bunch of general biographical details. Back matter should be "now that I’ve told you this one tiny story, what else do you REALLY need to know." When the back matter is longer than the book, it means trouble. Sometimes mine is...

7. How long do you devote to researching a book? Do you research it all first, and then write? Or do you do a bit of both all along?  
It’s a giant spiral of research and writing, always a lot of research up front, choosing or finding a direction and then going back and filling in detail research while the story takes shape. As for how long? The shortest I’ve ever written and researched a picture book is less than a week, the longest is the better part of a year. Depends.

8. What draws you to write about a subject, and how do you choose your focus?
I wish I had an answer…I don’t know, I run into things, usually a fact I didn’t know or find interesting, but unless that fact leads to a story (not a topic, like“I  know, I’ll write about George Washington!")  it doesn’t work out. Many, many ideas don’t work out. Focus is something I look for from the beginning, if I can’t find some small part to focus on, I don’t do it. As an example,  just because Helen Keller had a bunch of dogs (which is a super cool thing, look it up!) doesn’t mean it really changed what she did, who she became or how she affected the world. At least, I couldn’t work it out right…maybe someone else can.

9. Have you ever started to write a book and given it up -- and if so, what made you decide to stop the project? 
See above!  I would bet I have 5 to 10 ideas or half baked/worked on subjects for every one book that works out. For me, an idea/project is always stopped if I get to a point where I can’t answer the question, “So What?” As in so what’s so important? why did this change the world? why would a kid need to know this? If the story is just cute or isn’t important or is a bunch of biographical details or I can’t find a way to tell it that will connect with an elementary aged child, I stop. Also, even when you’re published, not every book you finish gets sold, so there’s that too.

10. You seem to be a master at coming up with new ‘angles’ on topics that have been explored many different ways; how do you come up with these new avenues to explore? (For example: your phenomenal book about Thomas Jefferson and his library.) 
I’ll tell you the specific Thomas Jefferson Builds A Library story. I have gone to libraries my entire life, my sister is a librarian and while researching a completely different book on the city of Washington, D.C. (which didn’t work out!) I ran into the fact that after the war of 1812, Jefferson sent HIS OWN BOOKS to recreate the Library of Congress that the British burned. I was stunned…the Library of Congress we have today was founded on Thomas Jefferson’s ACTUAL BOOKS! I mean, I just could not believe I never heard that before!  I started reading about TJ and learned that books may have been the most important things in his life. I was really astonished when I searched for a kids book on Jefferson and his books and there wasn’t one! (P.S. THAT’S the first step before researching a thing, make sure it doesn’t already exist!) You can’t fake curiosity…I wanted to know more and that drove the book. Sometimes I think the ideas choose a writer.

11. What should we have asked you?
I guess you should have asked whether writing gets easier or harder once you’re published.  Writers think of publication as the big goal (I did too!) and expect to be free of struggle from that point. It’s not. I would say after a few books that it's easier to know when it’s right and harder to find stories that really “make the grade.” I’m less easily impressed with my own writing than I was in the beginning, and honestly, even though there are days that’s frustrating, in the end it’s all just part of a growth process. I love having a job where I can learn about whatever I want, read all the history I love and with great illustrators and great editors, help create a small piece of readable art for children.

Thanks for asking!
Barb has a phenomenal website:
Follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Thank YOU Barb for taking time to share your thoughts with all of us!  We can't wait to hear about what's next!


  1. I am so grateful to Barb for taking the time to answer our questions. I cannot wait to hear about her new projects!

  2. Wow, great interview. Thanks Barbara for sharing...your story and experience is affirming to this struggling writer.

  3. I am late to this Barb Rosenstock Library post partee BUT it's one of my favorite of the summer.
    Thank you for these insights into your non-fiction process.
    I think I'm especially pulled & uplifted by the mention of 4, 5, 6 books researched for every one published in this genre. I've been there... I am there...Appreciations to Todd & Barbara

  4. Fabulous post - loved the advice from Barb - thanks for sharing.

  5. What a fantastic post, Barb! I'm so energized to work now. Thanks so much!

  6. Thanks, Todd, and Barb, for all the answers to our questions. I love reading pb biographies!

    1. She was so amazing to work with! I'm hoping to arrange an author visit with her this year!

  7. I have THE STREAK on my desk right now. The pacing is magnificent. Thanks for sharing your tips, Barb, and for conducting such a great interview, Todd.

    1. It was my pleasure! The STREAK is tremendous!

  8. Thank you, Todd, for bringing Barb to the GROG. And thanks, Barb, for a terrific interview. I especially liked the comment, "I'm less easily impressed with my own writing than I was in the beginning." I recognize that sentiment in myself! So glad that my early writing hubris quickly gave way to humbleness, for that allowed more growth.

  9. My pleasure. I hope we can get even more authors to share their thoughts with us!