PJ McIlvaine has been published in The New York Times and Newsday. PJ is also a regular contributor for the Children’s Book Insider newsletter, and a co-host of #PBPitch, a Twitter pitch party for picture book creators.
PJ has written across ages and genres, including a screenplay for Showtime which became the movie My Horrible Year. Her picture book, Dragon Roar, releases on Oct. 19, 2021 through MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing, Inc, which specializes in books for readers with dyslexia.
You’ve had quite a career in writing, including writing a movie for Showtime (which earned a daytime Emmy nomination, very cool). What has that been like and why did you switch to kidlit?
Well, it’s like being on a roller coaster without a harness or safety belt. Sometimes you have to hang on and hope when the rides over, you haven’t broken every bone in your body. I consider myself a Jill of all genres when it comes to writing: I started out writing short stories, then poems, song lyrics, then eventually novels and screenplays but nothing in the kid-lit arena. Then my mother died (I was her caretaker for years), and I was now a grandma. I read picture books to the babies, and I realized hmmm, this was something I could write. So then I immersed myself fully in picture books, and soon graduated to middle grade and young adult. I have a good feel for kid lit—I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden growing up. So given where I was in my life, it was a natural evolution.
What’s been the most challenging part of writing for kids that you didn’t expect as a writer in general?
In my experience with kid lit, it’s not enough to dream up stories for kids because, generally, they aren’t the ones buying—its the adults in their lives: their parents, grandparents, relatives, etc. My goal is to write stories that kids will enjoy and adults will engage in as well.
Tell me about Dragon Roar. What inspired you to write this particular story?
At the time, I was going through a real hardcore dragon phase: dragons at school, dragons burning homework, dragons as pets, alien pets, you name it. I came up with the idea of a sick and lonely dragon who loses his roar. Now this dragon thinks he’s all big and bad, and he’s been terrorizing a small village below his cave. Then the brave village girl who befriends him, despite him being a meanie, came into play. So there are themes of acceptance and friendship, and learning that no one can do it alone—sometimes you need help and encouragement and a new pair of eyes to solve problems.
We have to talk about the font. I noticed it, and it wasn’t until I read the end that I realize why it was so different. It’s a very cool program, and I imagine it has been rewarding to be part of it, but did you purposely submit to MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing for that reason or was it more serendipitous?
No, honestly, it was just fate. I knew someone who’d been published by them, and when I researched the company, I felt that Dragon Roar would be a good fit. As it turned out, I was right. The font was a bonus as far as I was concerned.
What was the journey like for this story? Did you submit to agents or editors? How many rejections before it found it’s home, etc.?
I submitted the story, but not widely. I’d venture I got maybe a dozen passes before MacLaren-Cochrane sent me a contract.
The art is brilliant. Did you get to collaborate with the illustrator or did he take it and run with it?
I’m so glad you like it. The feedback I’ve gotten confirms that the artwork is fantastic–-Logan Rogers did an amazing job capturing the essence of the story. I had a few art notes tucked in the story, but Logan was in the drivers seat all the way. My editor had a strict policy: after I saw the initial sketches and approved them, I couldn’t contact Logan at all. I guess some writers are, how shall I put it–over eager and cross the line? I trusted Logan and stayed in my lane.
How may art notes did you have in your script?
Not many, just brief one liners.
What’s your favorite moment in this book?
Oooh—I’d say the ending which I won’t spoil. But you’ll know it when you see it. I also loved the humor in the panels—and the Monk! I giggle thinking about him.
How long did it take you from the time you wrote your first draft to the time you signed your contract?
I’d like to say less than six months. The contract was offered rather quickly–I think within weeks of submitting it was a yes, we want it.
What advice do you have for writers trying to break into the kidlit market?
My advice: do something else! Writing is HARD. But if you’re like me—a stubborn, hopeless romantic living on a prayer with the hide of a rhino—then by all means, go for it. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. You need patience, you need to persist in the face of countless rejections. When you read of an “overnight success”—what a joke—you’ll usually find it took years of writing books that failed or were never finished, just hacking away until all the stars in the constellation aligned. Writing is like planting seeds, some grow and flourish, others wither on the vine. The only thing you can control is your writing. I write every day even if it’s only a sentence. And yes it’s a cliche, but the more you write, the better you get at it. And talent is only half the battle—you need luck, too, to be at the right place at the right time with the right project. You also need a champion—someone who believes in you and is willing to put in the time and effort. No one said it was going to be easy.
Any more projects on the horizon?
That’s like asking a chicken if its stopped laying eggs—impossible! I have more ideas than I know what to do with. After I finish my current WIP, an adult thriller suspense mystery that has taken over my life–talk about a challenge and pushing boundaries—I plan to return to a couple of MG and YA stories in various stages. I have a couple of screenplays left in me as well.
Anything else you’d like to add?
You’re never too old—or too late—to follow your dreams. When I wrote the screenplay that Showtime eventually bought—it was essentially a first draft—everyone laughed at me, including my family. I was a housewife/Mom/ full time customer service rep in New York who didn’t know anything or anybody. But I didn’t give up. If I could do it, so can you.