Interview with Author Chana Stiefel

 

ChanaStiefel_Head shot_Color.jpgChana Stiefel’s latest picture book, My Name is Wakawakaloch!, made its debut last month and has already charmed its way into the kidlit circles. Chana is graciously giving one reader a signed copy of My Name Is Wakawakaloch!. Please see below for details.

Thank you, Chana, for your time. 

Your newest picture book, My Name is Wakawakaloch!, hit the shelves in August. What was the inspiration for it?

I grew up with a hard-to-pronounce name (click here to learn how to pronounce her name), and I could never find my name on a T-shirt, mug or keychain. People continue to bungle my name every single day. Originally, I wrote a story about a girl named Chana who wanted to change her name to Sue. Her grandmother told her about her namesake, her great grandmother Chana who came to America as an immigrant and was incredibly kind. (Guess which name Chana kept?) My critique partners liked the story and found it relatable, but they felt that Chana should solve her own problem. I agreed, but I struggled with a solution. A few months later, my husband and I were on vacation in the Canadian Rockies. I had read a blog post by my agent John Cusick, who basically said that if you’re stuck on a story, drop your main character into a new setting. While hiking in Banff among rocks and boulders, I thought to myself, “What if Chana was a cave girl?” and “What if her name was something different, like…Wakawakaloch?” I started writing at 5 a.m. the next day. The new pre-historic setting opened up fresh opportunities for storytelling, as well as new language, new dialogue, new characters, and a new set of conflicts and solutions.

MY_NAME_IS_WAKAWAKALOCH_JKT.inddI can relate to Wakawakaloch, you wouldn’t think it, but especially when I travel overseas, my name trips up a lot of people. And there were never any t-shirts for me as a kid. Did you know this story would be relatable to so many kids and adults? 

I’m so happy to hear that I’m not alone! I do know many people with hard-to-pronounce or unusual names, the kind you can never find on T-shirts. Funny story, though…when I told my friend Sue that I was writing Wakawakaloch, she said, “Oh! I can never find a keychain with my name on it either! They’re always sold out!” LOL!

Wakawakaloch was inspired from your own personal history. How do you effectively mine those personal moments and turn them into something usable? 

As an author, I think you always have to have your antennae up for when those relatable stories come along. But you often don’t have to look very far. When writing for kids, take a walk down memory lane and try to drum up some relatable stories from your own childhood. What were your likes and dislikes? Who were your friends? What kinds of adventures did you go on? What kinds of challenges did you have and how did you solve them? Check out this post I wrote for Tara Lazar’s Storystorm 2019 about tapping into your childhood for story ideas: https://taralazar.com/2019/01/21/storystorm-2019-day-21/ (BTW guess who won that book giveaway?) (It was me 🙂 )

 How did you come up with the name Wakawakaloch—it’s a mouthful but also really fun to read-aloud (and I like the homage to your name in the last two letters.)

Thanks! I wish I had a better answer, but the name just popped into my head. It’s just a silly, made-up name.

What are some fun moments you’ve had when talking to kids about Wakawakaloch?

At my launch party, a little girl wanted to know why Wakawakaloch lived in a cave. She thought only bears lived in caves. I also love when kids share their hard-to-pronounce names and how people mispronounce them. You can see some of those adorable kids on my book trailer:

Did you use any art notes in the version you submitted to your agent? What about the version your agent submitted to editors?

Great question! I actually had very few art notes. The first note, at the start of the manuscript, says: “Group of cave kids are playing.” Without that note you might wonder why these kids are speaking like a bunch of Neanderthals (which they are). On one of my favorite spreads, where Wakawakaloch sees the cave drawings of her namesake “performing brave and heroic acts,” I added a note: “Illos: Cave paintings of Mighty Wakawakaloch leading her tribe to safety across a melting ice bridge; cooking sabertooth stew during the Great Blizzard of 11,000 B.C.; rolling a giant boulder to plug the mouth of a steaming volcano…”

Finally, I added a note for names on T-shirts for Wakawakaloch’s T-shirt business and a suggestion for the endpapers. The illustrator, Mary Sullivan, took my manuscript to the next level and added MANY wonderful details. She’s hilarious! I got very lucky!

What was Wakawakaloch’s journey like to find her publishing home?

I had a bunch of rejections early on. (One, I recall, because the publisher already had a cave kid book.) But that’s part of the process. When my agent called to say we had an offer from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I was on my way to an NJSCBWI conference. I was jumping up and down and screaming. Then I had to keep the news to myself throughout the conference.

Did your editor ask for additional revisions? How did you work through those? 

Amazingly, there were very few edits. My editor and I actually had a back-and-forth email exchange about whether to use the word poo or poop. (We went with poop.) 

Let’s back up a bit, you sent Wakawakaloch to your agent and he loved it, but how did you find your agent originally? And did he see Wakawakaloch in it’s non-cave-girl version first

I met my agent John Cusick at an agent pitch at my very first NJSCBWI conference in 2013. I pitched my first picture book Daddy Depot, about a girl who returns her father to the daddy store. John laughed and asked me to send the manuscript. We did some revisions that summer, I signed with with him, and we sold the manuscript to Feiwel & Friends that fall. 

In 2016, I shared WAKAWAKALOCH with Molly Jaffe at a round table at a NJSCBWI workshop. Molly, who was dating John at the time, loved it and said I should definitely send it to John (they’re married now—unrelated to my book story, I think). Then I got this tweet! 

John C's Tweet

Making your agent cry is sometimes a good thing! John saw the near-final version of Wakawakaloch, not my first drafts. 

In general, I only send my most polished work after many revisions. But lately, I’ve also set up strategy sessions with my agent to pitch ideas to him over the phone. This saves both of us lots of time in the long run. I’d much prefer that John tell me that an idea wouldn’t sell early on than after writing and revising for months. Pitching ideas helps me prioritize what books to work on and decide which concepts are most marketable—yet another reason that writers need good agents! (If you don’t have an agent yet, I recommend pitch sessions with critique partners before delving into a story. Getting their reactions or advice early in the process can help shape a story and save precious writing time.)

Your husband did a really cool thing to help you market Wakawakaloch. Can you talk about that?

In publishing, it helps to surround yourself with positive people who support your writing career. My husband is my greatest cheer leader. He wanted to do something special to celebrate Wakawakaloch & promote the book. He reached out to celebrities via cameo.com to ask them to share their #namestory and make a short video congratulating me on my book birthday. The videos from celebrities like Colin Mochrie (who wrote me a hoedown!), comedian Gilbert Gottfried, Akbar Gbajabiamila (host of American Ninja Warrior), Red Sox player Kevin Youkilis, and the Night King from Game of Thrones (Vladimir Furdik) were fun and hilarious! They pretty much mangled my name and the name of my book but I think they did a great job. In terms of marketing, you can’t really know what moves the needle towards increased sales but the videos certainly heightened awareness about the book. They got over 5,000 views in a few days. My publisher and publicists have been great about promoting the book, but authors also have to do their share in terms of marketing. If you have a book coming out, I suggest starting your promo efforts early (at least 4-6 months in advance), and try to brainstorm some out-of-the-box promotion ideas that will make booksellers and readers take notice. Here’s a short clip of the videos:

If you were just starting out as a writer, what advice do you wish you’d had from the beginning? 

Publishing takes TIME. Years and years. Be patient. Be persistent. Be professional. Be writing…and revising…and you’ll get there. Don’t give up!

You’ve had two fiction picture books, but you have many more non-fiction works. How hard was it switching gears from non-fiction to fiction?

I write with both sides of my brain—but not at the same time. Most of my career has been non-fiction. I started out with a Master’s in Science, Health, & Environmental Reporting from NYU. I then worked as an editor at Scholastic’s Science World, a bi-weekly science magazine for kids. I published a bunch of science and history-related books for kids about natural disasters, the yucky Middle Ages, astronomy and more. Then about 10 years ago, I started to explore fiction writing. I gradually learned the ropes of writing picture books (I’m still learning every day!) and now I alternate between fiction and non-fiction. My next two books are non-fiction.

With 25+ books behind you now, what’s in your writing future? 

I’m super excited to share that my next picture book, LET LIBERTY RISE: THE TRUE STORY OF HOW SCHOOLCHILDREN HELPED BUILD THE STATUE OF LIBERTY, illustrated by Chuck Groenink, will be published by Scholastic Press in 2021. It’s a little-known history about our nation’s most iconic statue. And I have another announcement coming soon—a story that’s near and dear to my heart! Stay tuned.

Thank you, Chana!

One lucky reader (USA addressees only) will receive a free-signed copy of My Name is Wakawakaloch! Please comment to enter. For an extra entry, share on social media and copy the link of where you shared in your comment. I will stop taking entries at 11:59 p.m EDT on September 16 and will announce the winner on September 17. Good luck!

Congratulations, Jess, you are the winner!

For more information about Chana, visit her site: https://chanastiefel.com

 

8 thoughts on “Interview with Author Chana Stiefel

  1. Great interview! I really love the idea of changing the story by dropping the character into a new environment. A great way to change it up and something i’ll try in my writing! Thanks Chana!

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