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St. Paul children’s book writer beats the odds with a double feature

Susan Marie Swanson
Photo by Chris Bohnhoff
Susan Marie Swanson

Something about parenting seems to amp up people’s inner art critic. The guy at the Walker with his toddler: “Look Jaden, you could have done a better painting than that!” Me, reading to my kids at night: “I see a purple cat looking at me … [Man, this Eric Carle guy is so overrated. What a racket!]”

OK, OK, Carle is a talented artist. We like the caterpillar book. But after that one comes a vast empire of beautifully illustrated but repetitive, robotically written follow-ups. And every night, I wonder, how hard can it be to write a book with eight words on a page? Harder than you’d think, says local children’s book author Susan Marie Swanson — and perhaps also, almost as easy as you might think.

“True, it’s not the same investment in time that, say, an adult novel might require,” she says. “But much more thought does go into a good children’s book than most people realize.” The really hard part, she admits, is getting the thing published.

This spring, Swanson achieved a rare feat: The St. Paul writer has two books out by two different publishers: “The House in the Night,” a bedtime tale with gorgeous, Wanda Gag-like illustrations, out this month by Houghton Mifflin, and the sunny, garden-themed “To Be Like the Sun,” out last month by Harcourt. The books, illustrated by different artists, look like day and night, but share a tone warm, graceful tone and a lyric narrative that is — oh, sweet relief to the adult reader — unexpected from page to page.

98 percent are rejected

Ann Rider, Swanson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, says she publishes only 12-15 picture books a year, leaving her with the unpleasant task of rejecting 98 percent of the submissions she receives. So how did “The House in the Night” rise to the top of the pile? “The language was lovely and intriguing, of course, but as with most picture-book texts that inspire me, I began to see pictures right away after reading it,” said Rider. “In fact, I began to see it with pictures by the very artist who ended up illustrating it, Beth Krommes, and in a black-and-white-and-gold palette, too. It began to seem like the sort of book that had not been done before.”

Perhaps it is Swanson’s background as a poet that so perfectly poised her for picture-book writing. She has published two other children’s books and an anthology of poetry by children, but she began her writing life as a poet. “I’d been writing poetry for adults and working with children’s writing in the schools [through the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the School Program, and about the time my second child was born I reached a crossroads as a writer. I decided I wanted to devote myself to children’s literature.”

Swanson submitted ideas to editors, fielded rejections and built relationships. “As in any field, relationships are important. There’s a blizzard of paper in this world, isn’t there? It’s so easy for someone’s special book to go unnoticed,” she said. In addition, Swanson immersed herself in the local and national children’s book world, as a teacher and as a children’s book reviewer for the Hungry Mind Review.

Observed trends in publishing
She began to see trends and patterns, and noticed that a particular editor had worked on many of the books she especially enjoyed. “I knew that he knew a lot about contemporary poetry,” she said. So she sent him her manuscripts. He rejected four of them before he accepted one. (Swanson says she can’t even remember how many times she’s been rejected by other editors.)

Despite the bad odds, the children’s book market is growing substantially. A recent Wall Street Journal article notes that hardcover juvenile book sales rose more than 12 percent last year,to nearly $1.9 billion in revenues. Adult book sales rose by more than 4 percent. Savvy writers let the marketplace, not the muse, guide their efforts.

“There’s the work of the writing, and there’s the challenge of understanding the business aspect of things,” says Swanson. “But you have to keep a place for that person inside of you who just loves to write, and separate it from the person who has to research agents and trends and competition and all of that.”

Working in schools helps Swanson keep in touch with what originally drew her into the business. “I love that moment when you hold up a book and all the children stop and lean in closer. I’ve been working with children for a long time, and they are different today, no doubt about it. Things are faster-paced. But there’s something really magnetic about a picture book. For a few minutes, it can stop time.” 

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