Did the events in the Spiderwick Chronicles really happen? Do you believe in fairies? Are the Grace children real?
Holly Black and I received these questions often while we promoted the Spiderwick books and film. While we both created the story of the Grace children and the fantastic world they discover, it was based on real events.
Both Holly and I believed in the existence of fairies as children. While working on the Spiderwick stories we researched many historical accounts of interactions with the fey-folk (like "The Secret Commonwealth" as started by folklorist Robert Kirk and released as "The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies" by Andrew Lang) as well as listened to detailed recollections by children and adults who claimed to have seen into the Invisible World. These accounts, by contemporary children, inspired the note at the beginning of the chapter books and the story of the Grace children.
As an adult I learned that there is energy in all living beings: humans, animals, plants and microorganisms. I also know that there is much that we cannot comprehend with our limited five senses. After all, the average dog can hear and smell far beyond the average human. I, therefore, believe the possible existence of energy formations that we cannot sense except in the rarest of circumstances. Some may see ball of light, a ghost, a will o' the wisp or even a fairy. The mystery continues to intrigue me to this day.Back to Questions
I have an idea for a children’s book. What do I do next?
For writers, there are many newsgroups online which cater specifically to children’s books. For illustrators, a book dummy is a must. Illustrating a single image is one thing. Understanding the layout of a book as a whole is entirely something else.
You may want to look into organizations, such as The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators
(aka the SCBWI), for a list of seminars and workshops in an area near you.Back to Questions
How did you break into children’s publishing?
TD: I tried to send sample portfolios from afar when I was an art school grad (back in 1992), but it was to no avail. Angela and I then moved to New York City where I began dropping my portfolio off to the various publishing houses. Even then, it took almost three years to break into this field that I adore.
First off, I called many children’s illustrators to get tips on what to have in his portfolio. I began creating images of subjects I like to draw to fill my portfolio. Next, I created a book dummy to show that I understood how books were laid out and produced. Finally, I began going to the bookstore and library weekly to see what kind of books publishers where publishing. I would cater my submissions to publishing houses I thought would respond positively to my work.
I also began contributing work to children’s magazines. Having my work published in this form started creating a familiarity with my work and name.
But most importantly, I did not give up. Whenever I could, I met with editors and art directors in person. With every rejection I learned something new and changed my approach, until I finally got a portfolio I was really proud of. I continued to meet with publishers until I found an editor who really understood me and my potential.
Although I started illustrating for role-playing games, there was no gaming art in my portfolio. All sample pieces were created specifically to showcase what I was capable of in the field of children's publishing. You can see some of the samples that I presented in the blog post "Bridging the Gap
".Back to Questions
Will you provide feedback for my children’s book manuscript? Will you blurb my book? Will you illustrate my story?
I am busy writing, illustrating and promoting my own books. It is how I make my living. Therefore, I pass on offers to read, illustrate or blurb unsolicited manuscripts--especially self-published books--so that I can spend time working on my own projects.
If you need feedback on your manuscript, I suggest joining a readers group or an organization, like the SCBWI, to help you learn your craft.
If a major publisher is releasing your book and you'd like me to see it, please contact my agent, Jodi Reamer, at Writer's House. However, I don't blurb often and generally only blurb books from people I know personally.Back to Questions
How do you come up with your stories?
There have been times when I would come up with a neat character, like Jimmy Zangwow, but wasn’t sure what to do with him. Where could I send him? What could he do? What trials and tribulations awaited him?
Story structure has been a very important factor in the books that I have created. And the study of how stories are built, tested, and received by the reader, is a fascinating one. There are some great books which may inspire you.
First, I found a book about the most common plots used in modern storytelling. The book, 20 Master Plots
, gives many examples of the various plot structures that make up most of today’s stories; whether they are for a book, television, or motion picture.
I am a big fan of the classic “Quest Plot” and Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero of 1000 Faces
. I first learned of Joseph and his theories when doing research on George Lucas and how he created the Star Wars
Taking Campbell’s theory and putting it into a storyteller’s toolbox, is a fantastic book that deals with nothing but the “Quest Plot” called The Writer’s Journey
. This book discusses the various points a hero must make on his journey to become a true hero, and the archetypal characters he meets along the way that help/hinder him.
Did you ever wonder why Merlin and Gandalf and Obi-Wan Kenobi were all similar types of characters? Read The Writer’s Journey
and you’ll know why.Back to Questions
When you were starting out, did you ever work with an agent? How do you feel about contacting literary/illustration agencies to sell your work to potential book publishers?
You can have quite a bit of success with an agent showing your work around for you. Many have great relationships with different houses, and can get your work into the most receptive hands. The problem is getting that agent.
Many times agents, like publishers, won’t touch someone until they are more established (at least some of the bigger agents). This means you have to try to get published on your own and start up your career, then they can then step in and help guide you (hopefully) upward.
My advice (and what worked for me): Try to get published on your own if you can, because you could spend just as much time courting an agency. You may be able to do it yourself. And keep in mind, agents take a percentage of your gross, and those first advances aren’t that big.
I held out for as long as I could before I got an agency to represent me. That’s because I wanted a BIG agency to represent me, one that could not only handle my books, but movies and licenses as well. I didn’t have representation until after my first few books were published. Prior to that, I had an entertainment attorney look over my contracts.
Which leads me to…
If you can’t find an agent, at least get an entertainment attorney (with book deal experience) to look over your contract. You need to be educated on how business is done with creative property, and an attorney is a good start. Some attorneys may want a percentage of your advance, or you may be able to pay them a flat fee. My advice is to do it, an ounce of prevention can go a long way.Back to Questions
Why do you think the Spiderwick series has been so successful?
Honestly, the series was much more successful than I ever could have imagined. In the beginning, when I pitched the concept to editor, I really just wanted to do a John James Audubon-esque field guide to fairies, trolls and goblins. There was a loose backstory on Arthur Spiderwick, the fellow who created this guide; which, of course, was what intrigued my editor the most.
We soon realized that we were discussing two books—the illustrated field guide and the story of Spiderwick. While on tour for The Spider & The Fly
I spoke with many children, from kindergarten to fifth grade, and realized the gamut of reading ability varied from child to child. I wondered if Spiderwick’s story could, perhaps, speak to readers young and old.
My editor and I realized that maybe there was more to the Spiderwick story than one big middle-grade novel. Enter Holly Black, a writer I admired, who understood fairy folklore as she had been helping me research Spiderwick’s field guide.
With Holly on board, we set the story in the modern day with contemporary kids and broke the novel into shorter books aimed for 7 to 10 year-olds. It became more a serial than a series, with plenty of artwork to visually break up the text.
Holly was encouraged to keep the tone of the books a tad older than the usual fare for the age range we now had in mind. Summoning my memories of Arthur Rackham’s eerie work, I tried to mirror that tone visually. The result was a series of books aimed for a young audience but presented in a sophisticated package reminiscent of old fairy tales.
I feel we achieved much more success with this series than we imagined. I take comfort in the fact that we concluded on a high note with plenty of titles to enjoy, but not so many that the specialness of the series became diluted.Back to Questions
What did you think of the Spiderwick movie?
The filmmakers did a great job of adapting the stories. I got to witness firsthand what goes into making a film and understood many of the changes from the source material. The screenwriter couldn’t jam everything from all five books into one film. It would have been really long, and really expensive. Perhaps one day the studio will re-examine it as a television series.
In the end, the film retained the themes of the books—like Jared dealing with his parent’s separation and the power of knowledge that can be discovered in a book. Of course, I loved seeing my creature designs brought to life by the legendary Phil Tippett and the talents at Industrial Light & Magic. That was a childhood dream-come-true!
It was an awesome ride. I’m ready to do it again.Back to Questions