Vivian Kirkfield was the first kidlit author who spoke to me on Facebook I when I began my journey to publication. Her nonfiction picture books are on my shelves and I go back to them time and time again as mentor texts. Her generosity and love of reading and writing know no bounds. I am honored that I get to interview here on my little piece of the web.
For those of you who do not know Vivian, she can be described in five words: Writer for children – reader forever. Her bucket list contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting kidlit friends around the world.
When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the quaint village of Amherst, NH where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner.
A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, where she hosts the #50PreciousWords and #50PreciousWordsforKids Writing Challenges.
She is the author of Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House); Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (Pomegranate); Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books); Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books); and From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). You can connect with her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.
So, step onto my porch and meet Vivian Kirkfield.
J: Vivian, thank you so much for taking the time to let me interview you. I consider you a mentor because you write the types of books I like to read and hope to get published one day. I’m kind of a “fan girl.”
V: Thank you so much, Julie for having me on your blog. I know I am blessed to be living my dream…and I love interacting with other kidlit people. My mission in life now is to help other writers, published and pre-published, and to tell them to never give up because I know, for a fact, that nothing is impossible if you can imagine it.
J: Just like Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What drew you to writing for children?
V: As a child, I loved books. I’d take out a stack of books from the library in the summer and sit in the backyard and read, one after another. I penned little poems about horses and when I was a young mother, I put together a few dummy books to entertain my children. But I never seriously thought about becoming an author until my son took me skydiving when I turned 64. I had started blogging to spread the word about a self-published parent/teacher book I’d written, Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting, and Cooking. And through my blogging about picture books, I started meeting picture book authors…and that’s when my new dream of becoming a writer for children began.
I know how important books were in my life…they were windows on the world for me – and I hope that my books will inspire young children to dream…and then build their dream into reality, the same way Sarah E. Goode did in Sweet Dreams, Sarah.
J: Isn’t that the truth! I’ve always been an avid reader. My favorite t-shirt says ,” Bookmarks Are For Quitters.” Tell us, was writing always your dream?
V: My first dream as a child was to become a kindergarten teacher…probably because I loved picture books so much! When I graduated from college in in 1967, I was only 20 years old but I got married that summer and started teaching my first kindergarten class that fall in the New York Public School System.
J: It seems like many writers for children began in education, myself included. But kindergarten…I love kindergarteners, but that’s like herding cats! I bet they provided tons of inspiration.
Who were your favorite authors /illustrators when you were a child?
V: My favorite author of all time is Louisa May Alcott…I read Little Women at least 100 times…and all of her other books. I also loved Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables. Oh, and all of the Nancy Drew, Ginny Gordon, Hardy Boys, and Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. My favorite picture book author/illustrator is Tomie dePaola – I think I love every single book he has created…especially Clown of God.
J: We have similar tastes…for me it was anything with animals or mystery. I love Tomie dePaola as well, my favorite, being from Texas, is The Legend Of the Indian Paintbrush.
So let’s jump to your writing career. Most authors I come into contact are looking to be traditionally published, but as a pre-published author, I know how hard that is. I’m almost to the point of sending out my best manuscript to agents. How did you find your agent?
V: I am agented…with the agent of my heart. 😊 I’m just so lucky…and fortunately, she feels the same way about me. At the beginning of 2015, I set a goal to get an agent. I participated in #pitmad and the agent that ‘faved’ my pitch, asked to see more. I went to #MSWL and submitted to an agent and she asked to see more. I was a Gold member of 12×12 and one of the agents I had submitted to in 2014, responded in May of 2015 and asked to see more. And finally, I submitted to an agent who had just signed a friend of mine (I saw the announcement on Twitter) and she asked to see more also.
Let me clarify that I had submitted the same manuscript to all of these agents. This was the first nonfiction pb bio that I had written in the fall of 2014…and when it won the Rate Your Story contest, I knew it was ready to go. My advice to writers who are looking for an agent would be: have several manuscripts submission-ready…and send out the BEST one…the one that sparkles and sings.
J: Finding an agent is like finding the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. I love that you found “the agent of your heart” that makes this difficult journey much easier. Thank you for the great advice for pre-published authors like me.
We all have our own way of writing. Do you have a process you follow?
V: My writing process: I get an idea. I research. I write a rough draft…but I do try to craft the best opening lines that I can. For me, the opening lines are the doorway into the story. I also write a pitch or a one sentence before I write my rough draft because that helps me find the focus and direction of the story.
J: Getting that opening line for me is the toughest part. That’s where not only you hook your reader, but it sets the tone for the heart of you story. I’m gong to try writing my opening and closing lines first next time. See, why I consider you a mentor!
Do you write in an office or are you like me and have to get away from home?
V: Most of the time I work at my small dining room table on my laptop…there is a big picture window that looks out on 3 acres of woods…it’s a great writing retreat, for sure. And food? Hehehe…I could munch all day…yogurt with trail mix, a bowl of cut up melon, I have to force myself to take breaks from writing/social media/blogging and go outside and walk or do something else. Otherwise, I’d be at the computer 24 hours a day…I love it so much!
J: It must be nice looking out into the woods…how peaceful. I have to get away from home or I feel like I should be doing laundry! The computer is a siren. You can really fall down a rabbit hole researching for a manuscript.
Speaking of research, you write nonfiction picture books. What is your research process?
V: I love research. That’s probably why I write a lot of nonfiction pb bios. I enjoy digging in and finding information. First, I go online and get as many sources as I can…many times if you look at the bottom of an article (even a Wikipedia article), you will find the sources that writer used. I also try to get primary sources…when I researched VOICES, I had to verify that Ella and Marilyn were truly friends. None of the books stated that. I reached out to an author of several Marilyn books…she directed me to the president of the Marilyn Remembered fan club…and he directed me to the woman who had been Ella’s promoter for 37 years. And she and I talked on the phone for hours. My local librarians are also amazing resources for me.
J: That’s so exciting! Getting to talk to Ella Fitzgerald’s promoter! That is what makes research so fun. That is my favorite thing about writing nonfiction. It’s like solving a mystery, the thrill of the hunt.
Speaking of Marilyn and Ella, what was the inspiration for MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD: THE INSPIRING FRIENDSHIP OF ELLA FITZGERALD AND MARILYN MONROE?
V: My inspiration to write Making Their Voices Heard came from a photo I saw online back in 2014. I grew up in the 1950’s and loved Ella Fitzgerald’s jazzy blues and Marilyn Monroe’s comedic genius. But I didn’t know they were friends. Yes, from the photo, it was obvious they were. I had to know the story behind the photo and I began my research. The more I learned, the more I realized this was a relevant and timely story for today. I wanted young people to see that our friendships can and should be inclusive because, no matter how different we look on the outside, as I say in the book, “On the inside they were alike, full of hopes and dreams, and plans of what might be.”
J: MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD is extremely timely. I read it to my class and it prompted some great discussion. We compared it to events throughout US History and how if people just loved one another for who they are this world would be a beautiful place.
Your writing process seems pretty fast. How long did it take you to write MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD?
V: I’m a pretty fast researcher and writer. I wrote VOICES at the end of 2014…it probably took me a few weeks to do the original research and a week to write the manuscript. But then, of course, I revised it with the help of my critique buddies and submitted it to that first editor seven months later. It went through many revisions after that.
J: So you wrote it in 2014, how long did it take to get published?
V: That’s a great question, Julie. As I mentioned, I wrote the story at the end of 2014. In 2015, I shared it with critique groups and also sent it to Rate Your Story. In the summer, I attended a writing retreat and showed it to one of the editors. She loved it. But she wasn’t able to get her team to acquire it. This happened two more times over the next few years. For each editor, I revised and they loved the revision, but the publisher was hesitant. Then, in early 2018, Courtney Fahy from Little Bee Books got it and the rest is history.
J: I don’t think people realize how long it takes a book to get from inception to the shelves. It’s pretty eye opening.
My favorite line of MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD is your closing line. I am planning to cut the letters out and put them on my classroom wall next year. They are really impactful.
Do you have a favorite line?
V: Oh, do I have to pick only one? I have two favorite lines…the opening lines…and the closing lines.
“On the outside, you couldn’t find two girls who looked more different. But on the inside they were alike: full of hopes and dreams and plans of what might be.”
“On the outside, these two stars couldn’t have looked more different. But on the inside, they both understood that sometimes even stars need a little help to shine.”
I love these lines because they speak to the main themes of the story…that friendship needs to be inclusive…and that allyship…standing up and speaking out and doing something about discrimination is what needs to happen in our world today.
J: Those two quotes are wonderful bookends for the theme of the story. I urge people to pick up MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD, especially teachers. This story should be read to children of all ages.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started writing? What kind of advice would you give pre-published writers like me?
V: I wish I had known that it was important to hone my craft before submitting. I started this writing journey in 2012…but didn’t take picture book writing classes until 2014…and then I took FIVE that year. Which I don’t recommend. 😊 But I learned a lot that helped me find my voice and improve my writing.
My advice to pre-published authors:
- READ! In the genre you want to write – and really study the books as mentor texts…there is a ReFoReMo (Reading for Research Month) Challenge hosted by two authors…they show how to use published picture books as mentor texts.
- WRITE! I think it doesn’t matter whether you write 20 minutes every morning or an hour in the evening or however it works for you. But you need to be writing a lot. The more you write, the better you get.
- JOIN CRITIQUE GROUPS! I can’t emphasize this enough. Not only do critique buddies give you helpful feedback on your manuscripts…they also encourage and support you in this business that is filled with rejection. As much as your family members may love you, most don’t understand how this business works. My husband was always very supportive…he’d listen over and over to my revisions. But he couldn’t understand why I’d keep revising. He couldn’t understand how I could keep on going, even though rejection after rejection would come in. We need to surround ourselves with people who are doing what we are doing because they understand what it’s all about and they get it.
- EMBRACE REVISION! The bottom line is that we want our stories to be read by children…editors are very picky because the market is filled with books and they are looking for the one that will be able to compete and rise to the top and shine. As writers, we need to understand that this is a business…it’s not personal. Publishers need to make money or they will have to close down.
J: That is fantastic advice! I’m happy to say that as an educator, learning more about something is where I always start. I spent a year learning and working on writing before I even wrote a first draft of something.
Thank you so much Vivian for giving us your time and a glimpse into how you write. I encourage everyone to add MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD: THE FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN ELLA FITZGERALD AND MARILYN MONROE to their shelves. If you cannot purchase, please request the book from your library and make sure to leave reviews. Every little bit goes to helping support authors and illustrators.
Till next time.