The winner of the 27th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards talks about writing picture books that children will cherish.
See the complete list of winners from the 27th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Awards.
One of Katherine S. Ulshafer’s all-time favorite things to do is read to her children. “I think it’s so important to their learning and the whole bonding experience,” the children’s book author says. “It’s just priceless.”
So it comes as no surprise that her picture book, which won the Grand Prize in the Writer’s Digest 27th Annual Self-Published Book Awards, is called I Love You. The simple and sweet story relates the emotions of parenthood to the traits of animals. “I love you as fiercely as a mamma bear,” Ulshafer writes in the book. “I love you as softly as a meadow hare.”
The idea for the book came to Ulshafer because when she thinks about how much she loves her six children and 10 grandchildren, she is overcome with a mix of emotions so strong they can only be summed up with the word fierce. Trying to put this strong desire to protect and nurture her children in way that they could understand led her to think of animals, which she knows children love.
Once she tapped her mind into the animal kingdom, which provided a wellspring of ideas, I Love You practically wrote itself. “Of course, fierce came with the mama bear, and most children can understand the personality of a bear and how protective they are,” she says. “I just went from there with different animals that I thought would be appropriate with those emotions and match them up.”
Among Ulshafer’s competition winnings are $8,000 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City, including a Pitch Slam spot.
In addition to Ulshafer’s words that flow seamlessly with a beautiful rhythm from page to page, I Love You is accompanied by stunning watercolor illustrations by Sarah Frushour Emms. Ulshafer says that much of I Love You’s success can be attributed to their harmonious collaboration. She had known Emms previously and when she saw that her artwork perfectly captured the vision she had for I Love You, Ulshafer asked Emms to be her illustrator.
While there were some times that Emms had ideas for the book that Ulshafer wasn’t quite sure about, Ulshafer just let Emms follow her vision and was pleased with the results every time. In order to maintain a fruitful author and illustrator relationship, Ulshafer stresses the importance of collaborators having a shared vision and the author trusting the illustrator to do what they do best: make words come alive.
Aside from a trusting partnership, Ulshafer says that taking the time to read to children and see what they like and dislike can also go a long way in creating a great picture book. “Most children, from what I’ve found, like beautiful illustrations, words that they can relate to that are fun to say or have a rhythm,” she says. “There’s a gazillion children’s books out there, but the simpler ones are probably the ones that kids relate to better.”
The flow of Ulshafer’s words comes to her naturally, which she believes has something to do with the fact that poetry is her first love. She has read poetry her entire life and even tried her hand at writing her own poems, which shows in the words she writes for children: “I love you as wildly as the desert fox; I love you as steady as the brown ox.”
In addition to reading plenty of poetry as well as children’s books, Ulshafer says that aspiring kidlit authors can improve their craft by simply listening to children. “I love all children. If you’ve ever sat in a room with them and listened to their conversations and watched them, they’re just amazing,” she says. “They’re funny and silly and when I read to them I pay attention to what they like. Then, I write for them. I write things that I think they would like to hear.”
Ulshafer’s works-in-progress include a 26-book, A–Z series. Each book in the series corresponds to a letter of the alphabet and a child’s name, such as Tough Taylor. The characters will all hail from different parts of the world, experience unique adventures, and learn a lesson along the way. The series is inspired by her children and grandchildren’s likes, dislikes, and the troubles they get into.
“When I was researching authors that I like, their advice was always to write what you love and write what you know,” she says. “And I love children, and I know them, so that’s why I write for children.
Despite her success self-publishing I Love You, Ulshafer plans to go through the traditional publishing process for the series because of the large number of books. Self-publishing I Love You was a good way to get her feet wet, but Ulshafer says that it was not an easy project. She landed on self-publishing after sending a manuscript for a different children’s book out to publishers that accept unsolicited queries and receiving several rejection letters. Ulshafer chose to self-publish I Love You because it is one of her shorter works.
To make the self-publishing process easier, Ulshafer recommends that authors who are also looking to publish their own books get a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses so that they know where to seek help. For example, while Ulshafer already had illustrations for her book, she wasn’t skilled in laying out the pages.
“There are so many self-publishing companies out there,” she says. “Some you do everything yourself—the layouts, picking the typeface, everything. You can be pretty much on your own and then there’s other companies where you send them the manuscript and they take care of everything, even the illustrations. So you need to research and find the one that fits you and what you want to accomplish.”