Author of twenty-nine books, Margo Sorenson was born in Washington, DC, and spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, living where there were few children her age, so books became her friends. She finished her school years in California, graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles. After teaching high school and middle school and raising a family of two daughters, Margo is now a full-time writer, writing primarily for young people of all ages, toddlers through high schoolers. Margo enjoys writing for young readers since she believes they are ready for new ideas and experiences, and they really enjoy “living” the lives of the characters in books.
Besides winning recognition and awards for her books from various groups, including the American Library Association, Margo was invited to donate and archive her working papers with the internationally-known children’s literature collection, the Kerlan Collection, at the University of Minnesota.
A couple of weeks ago I featured illustrator David Harrington. One of this new books was Spaghetti Smiles written by Margo. I thought it might be fun to hear about her journey as a writers, so I interviewed Margo and below are the answers to the questions I asked:
What was the inspiration behind writing Spaghetti Smiles?
The primary inspiration for this book was the question I always tell students during school visits: “What if?” Watching and listening to people in many different places can serve as the impetus for a wacky and crazy idea, if you ask yourself, “What if?” about what you see and hear. For example, for SPAGHETTI SMILES, one of my ideas was generated by the fact that our daughters used to have sleepover birthday parties in elementary school, and what they loved to do was to have “make-your-own-pizza” parties. The girls would line up in front of all the ingredients and create their own pizzas, some making faces and some making designs. I always wondered, “What if?” the pizzas could rearrange their own faces? The other “What if?” question popped into my head when our favorite Italian restaurant lost its neighbor, a toy store. The store remained vacant for some time, and I wondered, “What if?” a bank moved in next door? Or a post office? Or a gas station? What if things got mixed up between the restaurant and its new neighbor? What would be some of the wacky things that might happen? Because I love cooking Italian food and Italy (and lived there as a little girl) and reading, everything fell into place.
How long did it take you to write your new book?
I wrote the first draft in 1992! Yep, that’s 22 years! There was a lot of revising and there were many, many rejections of various versions, but, I really wanted young readers to find out about Jake and Uncle Rocco and let their imaginations loose, so I kept going.
How long did it take you to find a home with Pelican Publishing?
I queried them in 2010, received an invitation to send the manuscript in 2011, and received the offer in 2012. It took two years to get it published, which is fairly typical for a picture book. As you well know, publishing does move slowly, but, the book was worth the wait, because I am so happy with everything that Pelican has done for the book, including signing up awesome illustrator David Harrington, whose whimsical illustrations really bring the story to life!
What did you major in at the University of California in Los Angeles?
I majored in medieval history – yes, I was a geek, and you could say I still am!
It sounds like you lived in lot of places around the world. Is there a story behind that?
My father was in the US Diplomatic Service when I was young, so I was partly raised in Spain and Italy, before I returned to live in the US for the first time – what a shock! J After I grew up and married, my husband’s job took us lots of places, which is why we lived in California, Hawaii, and Minnesota. Different locations are great for writers, because absorbing the new atmosphere and all the sensory details can combine to make writing richer and more varied.
What inspired you to start writing children’s books?
Some of the parents of my students encouraged me to write, after I had taught their kids to write for national contests, such as the Scholastic writing contest.
What was the title of your first published book?
My first published book was HOW TO SNEAK UP ON A GOOD BOOK, a reading record book that I co-authored with my school’s terrific librarian, Anne Polkingharn. It is now out of print, since people realized they could Xerox many of the pages (gasp!) and thus stopped buying it! It was fun devising creative projects that kids could use to report on books they read, and it is the only one of my 29 books that is out of print.
When did that come out and how did you get the contract for that book?
That was published in 1994, and I researched educational publishers, happily finding Perfection Learning Corp. J Then, they offered me contracts to write a total of 21 more books for them for their enrichment and supplemental literature reading program, many of which are for reluctant readers.
Do you have an agent? If so, who?
I do not have an agent, nor have I ever had one. I wouldn’t mind an agent, but, open communication would be key. Being in the loop and knowing what is going on are very important to me. I’ve been very, very fortunate to have wonderful editors and publishers, so an agent hasn’t been necessary. For example, North Dakota State University Press/North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies just re-released my middle grade historical fiction TORI AND THE SLEIGH OF MIDNIGHT BLUE as an ebook, simply because they believe in the story, which means a great deal to me.
It looks like you have written books from young children to young adult, plus fiction and non-fiction. Do you gravitate to one more than another?
That’s a hard question –except for the non-fiction! Although I loved learning about new ideas and had fun writing the books, I am pretty much done with non-fiction, simply because some of it felt like homework! I wrote TSUNAMI and HURRICANE before the internet was as ubiquitous as it was today, and I trudged through the snow (yes, really!) to the Edina (MN) City Library to do my research. Making sure facts were correct and making sure they were explained in a way that makes sense to young readers were a challenge – and I ended up using about forty bibliographic sources for each one. Whew! What was fun was making some lasting friends writing TSUNAMI when I interviewed the two geophysicists who ran the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the International Tsunami Warning Center, and we are still in contact to this day. When my family goes to Hawaii, we try to stop by the PTWC in Ewa Beach, Oahu, and say hello! I enjoy writing picture books and I enjoy writing young adult, but, because of the current young ages of my grandchildren (the Adorables) I gravitate more to writing for younger readers right now. But, as a writer yourself, you know that is liable to change anytime!
At this stage in your career, do you still find you need to revise when writing a new book?
Whoa! Are you kidding? J I’ll put manuscripts away for a while and then take a look at them much later and wonder, ‘What was I thinking???’! It’s all about revision, all the time!
Do you still receive rejection letters?
Absolutely! When I do author visits, I always ask the kids to guess how many pounds of rejection letters I’ve received (that’s just the letters, not the manuscripts!) – I’m up to over 35 pounds!
Do you feel your writing style has changed over the years?
My writing style has definitely changed – thanks to editors and my critique partner, children’s author Bonnie Graves ( THE BEST, WORST DAY, MYSTERY OF THE TOOTH GREMLIN, etc.). Her voice rings in my ears: “Spare! Spare!” I hope I use words more economically these days – and I definitely use fewer (if any!) adverbs. Some of my earlier books like DANGER CANYON (still my best seller!) use more adverbs than I’m comfortable with using these days, but that doesn’t seem to keep young readers from reading them!
Are you someone who follows a daily routine with your writing?
I don’t follow a daily routine, unless I am working on a manuscript. Then, I start early in the morning, (with plenty of coffee!), and write like crazy. If I’m not working on a manuscript, I’ll try to daydream “what ifs” in odd moments, and write those ideas down to work on later.
Do you ever do any research when you write a fictional picture book?
I definitely do research when I write fictional picture books. We writers owe it to our young readers that the backstory is accurate, even though a lot of it might not even appear in the story. When I was writing Ambrose the Medieval Mouse stories (AMBROSE AND THE PRINCESS, AMBROSE AND THE CATHEDRAL DREAM) for Liturgical Press, I even sent the manuscripts to my former medieval history professor, the late Dr. Bryce Lyon, professor emeritus, Brown University, for vetting, making sure all the details were accurate. He was delighted to be of use and was a big help. As one example of many, my manuscript read, “Peasants and farmers crowded into the cathedral,” and he wrote me that “peasants *were* farmers,” so I deleted “farmers.” He was tickled that I dedicated both books to him as well as to my dear, supportive family.
How do you market yourself to secure school visits?
My author website has a whole section on my author visits, and I try to make sure that my name is found on various websites that list authors who do school visits. I also do twenty-minute complimentary Skype visits, and there are some websites that list those, as well, including that of my virtual author friend Kate Messner. Sometimes, I’ve even gotten a school visit through Twitter, such as this past September, when my friend and School Library Journal Librarian of the Year Michelle Colte (Hale Kula, Schofield Barracks, Wahiawa, HI) suggested through a Tweet to another librarian, Debbie Vandersande of Kahala Elementary, that she contact me for a visit – and it happened!
What is your greatest success story?
My greatest success story is when I hear from young readers that something I wrote spoke to them in some way – that they connected with the characters and the story. That’s really the reason I think that any of us authors write; when I was growing up, reading broadened my horizons and let me live lives I never thought I would, and I hope I can do the same for young readers.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a YA novel set in Italy, which is under submission, and a number of picture books, including UPSIDE-DOWN PUPPY and NO NAP, GRANDPA. I love the whimsy of picture books and thinking outside the box, and I love to hear young readers giggle!
Do you have any words of wisdom for writers looking to publish a book?
Yes, though it’s always tricky, since writing is so personal, especially at the very beginning of a writing career. One of my favorite sayings is from Ellen Kozak: “The First Commandment for writers is ‘Thou Shalt Not Fall In Love With Thine Own Words’.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that – it’s embarrassing, actually! Find a good critique partner, take your time, revise, revise, revise, and never give up.
Thank you Margo. I enjoyed reading your answers. Good Luck with the book. Keep in touch. Use http://www.margosorenson.com/ to read more about Margo and her books.