Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Meet Jill Esbaum - Rate Your Story Judge

It's Author Interview Wednesday!

I couldn't think of a better way to kick off our new Series (and keep the site active while I romp around Africa) than to present for the world our AMAZING  – and widely published – panel of Rate Your Story volunteer judges.  These guys have been working hard, for free, reading your manuscripts and generously offering guidance in the form of ratings and comments, a real testament to the awesome #kidlit community! 

(And, by the way, while you're enjoying this post, we're still working to get through the 43+ manuscripts submitted in the last 72 hours - plus the ones from last week. Ugh.  I mean, yay!)

 Now...enjoy the interview!   Our first guest is gifted in so many ways, and I had the pleasure of first meeting her in person at an SCBWI-Iowa workshop two years ago.  Please welcome...


 About Jill Esbaum:
Jill Esbaum is the author of eleven picture books with major publishers, including the award-winning Ste-e-e-e-amboat A-Comin'!, Estelle Takes a Bath, Stanza, and her latest, Tom's Tweet (illus. by Dan Santat). She is a former instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature, and, in addition to critiquing picture book manuscripts privately, she is a longtime workshop facilitator at the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival and co-hosts the annual Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Workshop. Jill and her husband live on a family farm in eastern Iowa.

Miranda:  Hi Jill!  Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.  Let's get right to the heart of why you're here–you're a master storyteller.  So tell us, besides a beginning, middle, and end - what does a story need to have?

Jill:  Spark. Something that sets it apart from everything else the editor – and kids! (and parents and teachers and booksellers) – have seen.

Miranda: Great.  Now let's get down and dirty with Rhyme. We seem to get a lot of rhyming picture books submitted to Rate Your Story.  What tools do you use when you're writing a rhyming story? 

Jill:  Rhyming stories look like the easiest thing to write, but are, in fact, the toughest. The thing to remember when writing a rhyming story is that three elements have to come together:  rhyme, rhythm, and story. And ALL have to be perfect. Tool-wise, I need my Webster's Rhyming Dictionary and a good hard desktop on which to bang my head repeatedly.   

Miranda:  Hope you've got good medical insurance!  Now, let's get a little more serious.  Tell us about the historical and nonfiction research you've done.  Do you research before a story, during, or after the first draft?  Any advice for writers who have submitted these kinds of stories?

Jill:  Yes and yes. I research extensively before writing anything. Often, even after a piece is roughly planned out, something I read or someone I speak with will send me in a different direction entirely, ultimately enriching the story. But research is needed throughout the process, too. When I was working on To the Big Top, for example, I read everything I could get my hands on to learn what circuses were like at the turn of the (last) century. After the first draft, I was e-mailing back and forth with a circus museum archivist to tweak certain descriptions. I asked what a sideshow barker wore and found out that they were actually referred to as talkers. Oops.

Miranda: Ok.  Enough about you (just kidding).  What's your favorite story or picture book written by someone else?

Jill:  Right now, I love, love, love Calvin Can't Fly by Jennifer Berne and Keith Bendis. Everything about it works.

Miranda:  Maybe it's not fair of me to ask...but I want to so I will:  What's your favorite piece of your own writing?

Jill:  Hmmm. I really like a picture book that's coming out next year from Dial, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! It's a rhyming story I first "finished" more than ten years ago. It stunk. But I loved the characters, a cow named Nadine and her two friends, Starla and Annette. Over the years, I must have tried them in five different stories, until I finally found the one that worked – and gave me that "d'oh, of course!" feeling. Whew.

Miranda: Are you working on anything now?

Jill: Yes, a humorous picture book story and a middle-grade novel.

Miranda: Of course, I should have guessed.  You're great at humor.  Can you end our interview by telling our readers a funny story about your writing or path to becoming published?

Jill:  Oh, jeez. Well, probably the funniest story has to do with getting published. It happened at my first writing retreat in 2000. I'd been so keyed up the night before the trip, I hadn't slept at all. The 3-hour drive to the retreat was a 4-hour, white-knuckled nightmare, thanks to a late-spring snowstorm. I soaked up the Friday afternoon talks and enjoyed schmoozing at the evening festivities, but ... no sleep that night either. Unfortunately, I'm no coffee drinker. I drink an occasional Pepsi, but I hadn't been able to find one anywhere in the facility.
So I'd been lucky enough to score a one-on-one crit with a dream editor (a guy), which was scheduled at 4:15 on Saturday afternoon. By then, I was barely functional. Fifteen minutes before, I went to wait in the hall and discovered a Coke machine in a niche I hadn't seen before. Yay! I chugged a can of Coke in an effort to wake up. Boy, did I. By the time I walked into the cozy little crit room, I was shaking and as wired as Woody Woodpecker. First I fell into an overstuffed chair and said something bright like, "Let's take a nap and just PRETEND we had a critique." Dream editor laughed a little uncomfortably (and eased away a few inches). Then, while he attempted to tell me what he liked about my submission, I interrupted him time and again, unable to shut the heck up. At one point, I slapped a hand over my own mouth – somebody had to. I was almost in tears; it was horrifying. Luckily, he had a great sense of humor and ended up buying my first picture book – Stink Soup – eight months later.

Miranda:  **gigglesnorting** Stink Soup is my daughter's favorite of your stories!  It was actually the first autographed book I ever gave her, too, and we thought of it yesterday when a skunk sprayed our neighborhood and she plugged her nose all the way to school.  

Thanks so much for letting me interview you and I think our readers will join me in saying thanks for lending your professional writing talents to Rate Your Story.  Can you let everyone know where they can read more about your books, buy them, sign up for your Whispering Woods retreat, or hire you to critique their manuscript in full?

Jill's Esbaum's Website:

Jill Esbaum's Professional Critiques Page:
(FYI: I've had writer-friends hire Jill more than once to critique - her services are that good!)

Link to the Whispering Woods Retreat:

Thanks for visiting, everyone!  
I also hope you'll come back to read these upcoming interviews:

Simon Rose - Feb. 15
Margot Finke - Feb. 22
Anne E Johnson - Feb. 29
Kelly Hashway - Mar. 7
Sharon Verbeten - Mar. 14
Lisa Wheeler - Mar. 21
Katrina DeLallo - Mar. 28
Lori Degman - Apr. 4
Comments are open below.  Let us know what you think!  


  1. Oh, great interview! I love TOM'S TWEET! A flip-flapping fluttery treat. Ha, ha. Such a cute concept and so well-executed!

  2. Wonderful interview, Jill and Miranda! Jill, you may remember that you recently responded to my email informing you that I'd reviewed Tom's Tweet. Normally I wouldn't email, but I was so floored by the unique voice you gave Tom, I just had to make contact. Creating that type of character voice is something I'm struggling with now, so reading Tom was a great learning experience (and a great story). That cat definitely has the spark you speak of, and that is turning out to be so hard to attain.

    Do you have a preference for writing rhyme over prose?

    Really looking forward to submitting to RYS...but all in good time. I have a few more head-banging rhyming sessions to get through yet.

  3. Thanks for introducing me to Jill. I have yet to read any of her books, but they look and sound wonderful.

  4. So nice to meet you Jill! Loved this interview, and laughed out loud at your editor critique story. :-)

    In so few words, you managed to portray the truth about writing in rhyme - hard desk to bang head on included.

    Thank you for the service you provide through RYS. It really is amazing.

  5. What a blast. I love interview full of information, personality and humour! I also loved the rhyming tips. I confess Jill is a new author to me too, so I am thrilled to meet her!

  6. Great interview! And thanks to all of you for doing Rate Your Story. :)

  7. Great interview! Thanks Miranda.
    Will definitely have to check out some of Jill's books, they sound wonderful especially the rhyming cow one.

    Jill, I love "Calvin Can't Fly". I am currently dissecting it to figure out how to make my pb bird story better. Thanks for sharing you story about the critique.

  8. I must urge you all to click right over to Jill's website and watch the trailer for "Tom's Tweet" where you will find a cat wearing a blue shirt. I guarantee you will burst out laughing!

    If only I were closer to Iowa, I would sign up for Whispering Woods in a heartbeat!

  9. Wonderful interview! Thank goodness that editor had a sense of humor. Thank you for sharing your stories, advice and time here on Rate Your Story.

  10. Hi everyone! Jill had some problems commenting, but wanted to answer your questions. Thank you for stopping by! Jill's responses are below:

    For Renee LaTulippe:

    I do remember, Renee. Thanks!
    I'd rather write rhyme, but not every story is suited to it. Lately, I've been writing more prose, and my brain is getting itchy, wanting to return to rhyme.
    Careful with the head-banging...

    For Julie Hedlund:

    Thanks, Julie! I'm enjoying RYS immensely!

    For bildebok:

    Thanks. I hope people will check out my Whispering Woods webpage. We've had attendees from as far away as Idaho! It's a beautiful facility, and we cram a lot into your heads. But I can promise a GREAT time, too!

  11. Awesome interview, Jill - you're such a talented rhymer! Estelle Takes a Bath is the first of your books I've read and it's still my favorite :-)


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