After Teaching, A New Chapter for Margo SorensonJuly 16, 2020
Inspired by the talented students in her English and creative writing classes, Margo Sorenson (CA ’91) has authored nearly three dozen children’s and young adult books. Her latest volume, “Calvin Gets the Last Word,” will be published by Tilbury House Publishers in October 2020. Margo talked with us about her creative process, the business side of publishing and how her teaching background feeds her writing. Connect with Margo on her website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you get started writing children’s books?
Margo Sorenson (CA ’91): I was a high school and middle school English teacher, teaching writing, and my very talented students were winning national contests. I just had to stay out of their way! Some of the parents came to me and asked me why I wasn’t writing myself. That did it.
MFF: How does your experience as an educator influence your writing?
Margo: As teachers, we’re always tuned in to our students—what are their hopes, their fears, their dreams? I try to write for that audience, those eager, bright faces with all the myriad emotions below the surface. We teachers are audience-readers. As we begin each lesson, we try to gauge how our students are feeling and what can spark them. After all, if we misread our audience, all our glorious lesson plans could implode. This same key mindfulness in our classroom teacher DNA helps a would-be writer immensely.
MFF: You’ve written in so many genres (adventure, historical fiction, biography, mystery, romance, sports)! Do you have a favorite?
Margo: I’ve written in so many genres because when I get an idea, it takes over, and it morphs into what it needs to be. The story and the main character make the choice for the genre; I don’t.
Because our family is heavily into sports, there are sports components in a number of my books. Some of my books were written under contract, and my publisher asked me specifically to write, for example, a biography series (I got to choose which subjects), two natural disaster books, and a sequel to a humorous novel.
My favorite genre is humor, primarily because humor saved many a lesson plan from complete and utter failure. It’s my belief that kids learn more when they’re having fun, even if it’s groaning over ridiculous puns uttered by their clueless teacher. Life is seasoned well by laughter. As Dolly Parton said: “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.”
MFF: You’ve written for varied age groups, too—picture books for young children, and teen romance. Is one age group more fun to write for? More difficult?
Margo: They each have their challenges, but overall, the most important thing for both age groups is not condescending to the audience. Writing a teen mystery-romance, like my young adult/crossover adult novel “Secrets in Translation,” which is set in Italy, requires that we treat the characters with respect and not “pretend” we know what is “cool”—a serious nonstarter that can elicit eye-rolls from teens. Paying attention to teens and listening carefully to what they’re saying (and not saying), and trying to intuit their underlying emotions are key preparation for writing for young adults.
Writing picture books requires making every one of the 500-700 words count. The readers are young, but we have to resist talking down to them or trying to give them a message, i.e. “this is how you should act.” Of course, messages may be hidden subtly in the story, but we need to be very careful not to be didactic, to give readers credit for being able to figure things out and come to their own conclusions. I think all the ages are fun to write for and they each present unique challenges that can stretch us in new directions.
MFF: Where did the idea for “Calvin Gets the Last Word” come from?
Margo: I’ve always loved words and wordplay, especially as an English teacher and speech and debate coach. I must admit that in ninth grade, I secretly wanted to be voted “Best Actress”—instead, alas, I got “Walking Dictionary.”
For “Calvin Gets the Last Word,” I imagined a character who loved words and was always looking for the right word in every situation, especially to describe his super-annoying older brother. Calvin popped into my brain. If he was working that hard to find the right words, I thought, just imagine how worn out his dictionary would be! Then it occurred to me that the dictionary should be the one to tell the story, since he was working so hard, with his spine bent and pages dog-eared and stained with grass and broccoli.
MFF: You have worked with several different publishers. Is the process always more or less the same?
Margo: Yes, but the intensity of the editing process varies depending on the editor, and the marketing varies depending on the budgets. Overall, however, I’ve found that people in the children’s book industry really do care about children and work hard to get the best books possible into the hands of young readers. It’s a team effort.
MFF: How did you find your agent?
Margo: My agent Dan Cramer is wonderful. We’ve been working together almost a year. I signed with him after I had already signed the contract for “Calvin,” so he wasn’t instrumental in that book’s journey, but we are working on new projects. He is very insightful and helps me revise my manuscripts to make them better and more saleable, and he submits them to publishers who accept agent-only manuscripts, which these days is most of them, unfortunately. I found him by submitting to his agency, Flannery Literary, which also represents [author] Gary Paulsen. I was thrilled when Dan wanted me to sign with him.
MFF: How do you and your illustrator(s) work together?
Margo: Actually, you may be surprised to hear that most of the time, I have no contact whatsoever with the illustrators until the final drawings are almost ready. That is intentional on the part of my editors. They want the illustrator to deliver their own creative artistic take on the words in the text, and not to be influenced by me, which is a good thing. I do get some input for changes, especially if I have real issues with something they have done, but that happens rarely.
Overall, I’ve been delighted with my illustrators, including the talented Hungarian Katalin Szegedi (“Ambrose and the Princess,” “Ambrose and the Cathedral Dream”). When my then-editor asked me to substitute the word “arches” for “flying buttresses” in my book about Ambrose the mouse building a gothic cathedral (can you imagine the medieval architect’s chagrin?), Katalin found a workaround. Living outside the medieval city of Budapest, Katalin was aghast at the thought of the book without flying buttresses, so she suggested she draw them in her illustrations, even though the words wouldn’t appear in the text. Fortunately, the editor was let go during the revision process.
I never communicated with Mike Deas, who illustrated “Calvin,” while he was working on the book, but he tapped into Calvin’s psyche (and that of his rascally older brother). Mike took my text to the next level by weaving baseball (which Calvin also loves) throughout his whimsical illustrations, using a baseball, bat and glove on Calvin’s bedroom floor from the beginning page all the way to the end of the book. I’m sure kids will have fun exploring all of Mike’s other humorous details in the pictures. Look for the baby’s and the cat’s and the ever-present dad’s expressions. Mike and I were always definitely on the same page, and now that the book is done, we enjoy complimenting each other on social media. Thank goodness my wonderful editors chose him to illustrate!
MFF: A lot of writers find publicity challenging. Do you love it or hate it?
Margo: As a former speech and debate coach and teacher, public speaking isn’t much of a problem for me. Connecting, which is what we teachers do on a daily basis, is part and parcel of publicity. There’s a lot of follow-up, dotting I’s and crossing T’s, but after the experience with my previously published books, as well as getting lots of terrific ideas from the wonderful children’s writers’ community, I’ve had a great deal of help with publicity. Many writers are introverts and hate getting out there, but as long as I remember that I’m trying to connect readers with my books, I enjoy it.
With “Calvin,” I’m counting on all my teacher and librarian contacts (including my fellow Milken Educators, of course!), as well as social media and my wonderful publishers, who have a great publicity and marketing team. “They say” selling books is all about word of mouth and recommendations from someone you know.
I’ve already been asked to do an all-day K-8 school visit in February (on-site, if we’re lucky), which will include “Calvin,” as well as some of my other books. Book tours aren’t done much anymore, especially in these days of lockdown, but virtual appearances are available, and I’ve had a lot of fun Zooming and doing Google Meets with students and teachers during these distance-learning times. With any luck, kids will be back in the classroom for the fall, and I can add Skype back into the mix.
If any Milken Educators are up for virtual or in-person visits, please email me. I love interacting with young readers and writers and hearing their fun questions. There’s always at least one I’ve not heard before that elicits a giggle and an “aha!”
MFF: Can you offer any advice for fellow Milken Educators who think they’ve got a children’s or young adult book in them?
Margo: Reach out to the children’s writers’ community, like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Read widely in your chosen genre, as well as others, including books about how to write children’s books. Persevere and be patient. Try to heed the First Commandment of Writers: “Thou shalt not fall in love with thine own words” (hint: your draft is not publication-ready). People who write for children are, by and large, a welcoming and very helpful community, so I hope any aspiring authors in our outstanding Milken Educator cadre do find their way to join in the fun!
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