Interview with author Chana Stiefel by co-blogger Donna Cangelosi
DC: Back in 2013 when I registered for my fifth NJSCBWI conference, I signed up to be part of a critique group. Several weeks before the conference, I received five manuscripts from the writers who would be participating in the group. One of them was DADDY DEPOT, written by Chana Stiefel. I remember the first time I read DADDY DEPOT like it was yesterday. BING! My eyes shot open! “How do people write like this?” I wondered. I fell in love with spunky Lizzie who tries to exchange her less-than-perfect (but totally lovable) dad at the Daddy Depot. Little did I know that Chana would become one of my critique partners, my co-blogger, and one of my closest friends. DADDY DEPOT (illustrated by Andy Snair) debuted May 16 from Feiwel & Friends. Here’s Chana’s story, plus a chance to win a signed copy of DADDY DEPOT below!
CS: Thanks Donna! I just want everyone to know that I couldn’t have done this without YOU! I still have your critique from that conference where we met. You invited me that same day to join your critique group, which has been a huge support for me. And I continue to cherish your wise advice and encouragement. Every writer should have a Donna!
DC: Thanks Chana! Ditto! What inspired you to write DADDY DEPOT?
CS: DADDY DEPOT was inspired by a bedtime story. My daughter, who was seven at the time, was mad at her dad, so we spun a tale about a girl who returns her father to the Daddy store. We laughed a lot. Afterward, I ran downstairs and wrote the first draft of DADDY DEPOT. That was eight years ago!
DC: How much of the book is autobiographical?
CS: The dad in the book is nothing like my own father, but very similar to my husband. He loves football, tells goofy jokes on a daily basis (as a pediatrician) and often falls asleep (and snores) during snuggle time. Nevertheless, I doubt my kids would ever return him to the DADDY DEPOT. The Mommy Market is another story. (Hint, hint to Feiwel & Friends.)
DC: Describe your writing journey.
CS: I’ve been writing books for kids for more than 20 years. I’ve written 20+ non-fiction books for the educational market, mostly about science and history. DADDY DEPOT is my first picture book and my first work of fiction.
DC: How did your experience as a non-fiction writer help you write picture books?
CS: It’s a very different process. You use a different part of your brain to write fiction. What did help was the habit of TIC (tush in chair) and the fact that I had a portfolio of previously published books when I met my agent. When I started writing picture books, I had to learn the process from scratch—through webinars, workshops, and SCBWI conferences.
DC: Tell us a bit about the publishing process for DADDY DEPOT.
CS: It’s been a long but exciting journey. I wrote my first draft in 2009. After taking it to a NJ-SCBWI craft workshop, where it was skewered (rightfully so because it had over 1,000 words, no character development and it rhymed terribly), I thought I would never write again. A few months later, I decided to watch a Writer’s Digest webinar on picture book writing by author Mary Kole. It inspired me to apply what I learned to DADDY DEPOT and my story began to take shape. After meeting you and joining our critique group in 2013, I was able to polish my manuscript and get it ready for submission.
DC: How did you find your agent?
CS: I met my agent, John Cusick of Folio Literary, at a four-minute pitch during my first NJ-SCBWI conference (the same conference where I met you!). It was incredible because I was a total newbie. But John must have liked my DADDY DEPOT pitch because he said, “Send it to me!” It was one of the happiest moments of my career. I remember telling you about it, and we were jumping up and down together. A few months later, I signed with John and DADDY DEPOT sold to Feiwel & Friends soon afterward.
DC: Were you involved with the illustrations?
CS: My publisher did ask for my illustrator wish list when the process began. Ultimately they chose the illustrator, Andy Snair. I couldn’t be happier with the way the book turned out. I did have some input in terms of looking at initial sketches. But the publisher felt strongly that the artist should have creative license and I can see why that works. Other authors have described “birthing a book together” with their illustrators. I would like to try that as well.
DC: How and where do you get your ideas for picture books?
CS: Anywhere and everywhere. In the pool, on walks, while I sleep, at the supermarket, reading the newspaper, hanging out with my family…. Ideas are everywhere. You just have to grab them and jot them down when they pop into your head.
DC: Do you have advice for unpublished writers about the publishing process?
CS: Of course you should read a ton of other picture books to study the craft. TIC is essential too. These books do not write themselves. Also I’ve become a firm believer that having a good literary agent is essential in this market. While you might have some success publishing a book on your own, agents help build careers. They understand the business aspects of publishing, open doors to editors, provide much needed editorial advice, negotiate contracts, boost your spirits when the rejections get you down, and so much more. In addition to polishing your writing, I would say putting your efforts into finding a good agent should be your top priority.
DC: What’s one take away from your journey?
CS: My writing instructors in college used to always say, “Write what you know,” meaning write from personal experience. I would extend that to “Write from your heart.” Write what you’re most passionate about. Heart-warming stories tend to strike a chord and are usually the most interesting and relatable.
DC: Great tips, Chana! What’s coming up next?
CS: I am in the process of editing a “monstrous” book about creepy critters that I wrote for National Geographic Kids, which comes out in 2018. My second picture book, WAKAWAKALOCH, about a cave girl who wants to change her hard-to-pronounce name (ahem!) will be coming out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. And I have some super exciting news to share soon!
From the archives! Here’s Chana’s critique of DADDY DEPOT by Donna from NJSCBWI 2013!