Hello and Welcome to Giveaway Week at YoT. Grab the party button (right sidebar) for a chance to win an autograph from Zac Efron.
It's such a joy to share my favorite things with you. Today's giveaway is also a take-away in the sense that you'll get some incredible personal inspiration. My interview with Samantha R. Vamos is for anyone who has ever had a dream, goal or wish that they've nurtured, pursued and poured their heart into.
Samantha is an award-winning children's book author. Her publisher is generously giving away a copy of her book Before You Were Here, Mi Amor to one very fortunate YoT reader. This poignant story sweetly follows a family through their heartfelt preparations for a new baby.
Samantha herself is graciously sharing her story with us. The path to getting published– with all it's breaks and bumps.
Samantha R. Vamos
What was the inspiration for "Before You Were Here, Mi Amor"?
The inspiration for Before You Were Here, Mi Amor was the birth of my first nephew – my younger sister’s first child. As my family and I thought about what each of us could do to welcome our future grandson/nephew into the world, I was reminded of the anticipation I felt over the birth of my younger sister. I couldn’t wait for her to be here and for her to be old enough to play with me. With those memories, I began writing and my book is an outgrowth of that experience. Of course, my nephew took a mere nine months to birth and my book took eleven years!
Tell us a little about the book…and the illustrations
Before You Were Here, Mi Amor is about all the things one family does to welcome a new child into the world. The story evokes the warmth and community of family life through the acts of each member – mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, and the family puppy. It is an ideal book not only for three to six year old children who are curious about the time before they were born, but also for new and expecting parents. Spanish words are woven throughout the English text, and both the context and illustrations clarify the meaning of the Spanish words.
Santiago Cohen enhanced the story with beautifully vibrant, jewel-toned paintings. Some of my favorite illustrations include the hermana (“sister”) showing the drawing she’s made of the members of her family, and the illustration of abuela (“grandmother”) painting an animal mural on the baby’s nursery wall. The illustration of the family dancing together always makes me smile. Later, the two-page spread of the mother rocking, wondering what her child will be like suddenly slows the text’s pace. In that scene, Santiago painted blues and purples that soothe and calm. He’s a talented artist and a kind, lovely person.
You've written it in both English and Spanish and it feels seamless to read… was that your intent?
Thank you. Originally, I had no intent whatsoever to make the book bilingual.
In 1998, I originally wrote a manuscript titled “Before You Were Here.” I sold it that year to a William Morrow imprint (an imprint is a publishing house division that has a distinct brand name). HarperCollins, however, acquired William Morrow. At HarperCollins, my manuscript sat with no plan for publication. Fortunately, I received a release, permitting me to shop the manuscript again.
Five years later, I signed with my current literary agency, Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc., and my children’s literary agent asked if I had ever written any bilingual manuscripts. Recognizing that the family is a very significant element of Latin American culture, as it is in many cultures, I realized that my original English manuscript about a family might appeal if rewritten to incorporate Spanish. As I incorporated Spanish words, the text flowed differently – the words sounded more intimate and tender. The text resonated more with me because the bilingual manner of speaking reminded me of the way I had heard language spoken as a child.
What's been the reaction of kids to this book?
I have found that children know a lot of Spanish words and really enjoy demonstrating their knowledge. More than that, I think children are drawn to the colors and illustrations of the family members. The book’s storyline inevitably prompts discussion and /or questions about what occurred before they were here. I have had some delightful responses when reading to children. Many children have told me some rather funny stories about younger siblings.
In the story the entire family is getting ready for the new baby why is that idea so important?
I really like the idea of everyone being involved and playing a distinct role. I believe babies may have a special and unique significance for individual family members so it seemed important to me to have each member respond in his/her own way.
Is family life a place where you tend to draw your stories from?
For some writing, yes. I am first-generation American on my father’s side. That part of my family is rich in heritage and stories. In total, my family is a big mix of cultures and religions and it provides for some interesting and often, entertaining perspectives. Everyone has a good sense of humor.
Can you share a little about your path to becoming an author? Have you always liked words and stories?
When I was three, my mom began encouraging me to make up stories. Without influencing subject, grammar, or length, she typed the stories exactly as I told them. She praised my attempts and I think my confidence as a beginning storyteller began to build.
When I was a senior in high school, I had an internship. At my mother’s suggestion, I submitted a week of my journal to the Outlook section of The Washington Post. The piece was published and I was absolutely thrilled. That experience really hooked me on writing.
Then, while in college, I began writing a children’s chapter book and submitted it to publishers. I received a lot of rejections, but some editors were kind enough to write personal replies and those responses helped keep me motivated.
I finished college and went to law school, continuing to write stories in my spare time. Nine years after graduating from law school, I sold my first manuscript to William Morrow (as noted above). That manuscript did not become published and I was heartbroken, yet I knew I had crossed a threshold and I became all the more determined to become published.
About five years later, I signed with my children’s literary agency, Andrea Brown, and they began shopping my manuscripts. My first book sold in December 2006 to Viking (an imprint of Penguin), and shockingly, my second book sold in the spring of 2007 to Charlesbridge.
Did you always "know" you'd be a published author?
I never knew with certainty that I’d become a published author, but my dream of publishing my stories was the most consistent hope I held for the last 30 years.
What have you learned on your path to fulfilling your dream that you can share with us?
I have learned a lot about tenacity and perseverance. I think those characteristics have become engrained after all these years. Also, I have learned that to become a successful writer it’s extremely important to be able to accept constructive criticism, apply it, and adapt.
My first real lesson in accepting criticism occurred in my first career – as a lawyer. Upon graduation from law school, I joined an international law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. The partner for whom I primarily worked had a reputation for creating good writers. I would turn in drafts of briefs to him and he’d return them covered in red ink. At first, it was very discouraging, but the senior lawyers with whom I worked had learned so much in terms of writing based on this partner’s edits and they were talented writers whose work I admired. Ultimately, it became a challenge to receive a draft back with little red ink (that is, few comments).
That experience served me well in terms of editing my stories. I’d send in manuscripts to various editors at publishing houses and if I was lucky to receive an informative decline, I studied the editor’s reasons and usually returned to the manuscript in question and tried to improve it.
I probably revised Before You Were Here, Mi Amor twenty to thirty times before it sold. With that short a manuscript, a revision can mean simply the change of one line, but sometimes the change of one line really alters the tone and pace of a story. Even now that I’m represented by an agent, I revise over and over if my agent gives me comments that she feels are important to improving a story.
How did you deal with any stumbling blocks on the way?
Now in retrospect, some of those stumbling blocks are funny, but before I was published, the stumbling blocks were really disheartening. Here are just a few:
1. I began submitting manuscripts to publishing houses when I was about eighteen years old. Had I kept the innumerable rejection letters, I could have wallpapered a small apartment.
2. As mentioned earlier, in 1998, I sold Before You Were Here to an imprint of William Morrow. Before publication, however, that imprint and William Morrow were acquired!
3. My acquiring editor lost her job.
4. At the new house, HarperCollins, I learned that my manuscript was going to be “backlisted” with no short-term plan for publication.
5. After obtaining a release, I later signed with a well-known agent, who didn’t sell my manuscript. It took me far too long to part ways with him for a number of reasons, but primarily because I worried that if he couldn’t sell the manuscript, no one else could.
6. Years later, I signed with my current house, the WONDERFUL Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. in California and subsequently had two “almost sales” of two different manuscripts. The first publishing house that wanted one story literally fell apart and no longer exists.
7. Then, at the end of 2006, Before You Were, Mi Amor sold to Viking, but the wonderful editor who acquired the book resigned before its publication!
Ultimately, my agency hung in there with me and I’m so grateful to them. I have a wonderful children’s agent, Jen Rofé. She delivers insightful critique and comments, yet at the same time, she is also willing to listen to ideas and she’s flexible. She is also patient, dedicated, and has a sense of humor. She’s out there building relationships and making connections and that’s terrific. I have always felt like she was it in for the long haul with me and that means so much. Being represented by Jen makes my work-life immeasurably easier (and more pleasant).
Who are your favorite children's authors?
I am amazed by the work, imagination, and creativity of so many authors including, but not limited to: Judy Blume, Norma Fox Mazer, J.K. Rowling, Dr. Suess, Rick Riordan, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Shel Silverstein, Judy Schachner, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeleine L’Engle, Jon Scieszka, Karma Wilson. There are many more!
Can you tell us a little about your next book?
I’d love to. The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred will be released February 1, 2011 (Charlesbridge) and the illustrations by Rafael López are just incredible. I love the book jacket description:
“When a farm girl starts cooking, all the animals want to help. The cow contributes milk, the hen offers eggs, and even the duck makes a special trip to the market. While the pot is bubbling merrily on the stove, everyone dances and sings – but who is watching the cazuela? Samantha R. Vamos and Rafael López serve up a spicy tribute to the classic nursery rhyme The House That Jack Built in this bilingual celebration of community and food.”
The idea for The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred popped into my head one morning while making pancakes. Lacking two ingredients, I thought how much more fun it would be if I lived on a farm and the cow was kind enough to provide a cup of fresh milk and the hen offered an egg. I began walking around my kitchen making up my story based upon the rhythm and format of the familiar nursery rhyme, “The House That Jack Built.”
Like the nursery rhyme, The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred is a cumulative tale. In this case, the action builds as a few Spanish words repeat.
Five different farm animals (goat, cow, duck, donkey, and hen) and their farmer each contribute ingredients to a pot (the “cazuela”) stirred by the farm maiden. A surprise dish is created (rice pudding or “arroz con leche”) and at the book’s end, an actual recipe is provided. There is also a glossary with a pronunciation guide.
I never finished making pancakes that morning, but I did manage to write a first draft of my story!
Rafael López (www.rafaellopez.com) is an award-winning children’s book illustrator, painter, sculptor, and muralist. His paintings for The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred are absolutely magical. I’m so very grateful that we’ve been paired on this book.
In Fall 2013, Charlesbridge will publish my first all-English children’s picture book. It’s a rhyming, alphabet book about twenty-six different trucks, tentatively titled Alphabet Trucks. I spent so much time playing with the rhyme and researching trucks for this manuscript that I ended up memorizing it. I’d walk around the house, trying out various stanzas and my son ultimately memorized it as well. Later, as we rode along the highway, we’d see a truck featured in the story and we’d recite the manuscript from memory from A to Z. After that experience, it was especially wonderful to learn that the manuscript sold.
How about your grown-up fans? Are you working on anything for us?
I’m working on an adult novel. Once that manuscript goes to my agent, I’ll return to a middle-grade novel that I began about fifteen years ago.
You and "Before You Were Here, Mi Amor" recently received a huge honor… can you tell us about it? When you found out you'd won… how did you feel?
In September, Before You Were Here, Mi Amor won a 2010 Washington State Book Award, specifically, the Scandiuzzi Award for Picture Book. I found out about the award via an email. I presumed it was notice of some rejection – as in another award my book was submitted for, yet did not win. To my shock, however, it was quite the opposite message. I broke into tears and called my husband while emailing my mom! It’s still surreal and I’m really grateful that the book received this wonderful award.
How does getting published change the way you think about things?
I hoped I could publish more books so I could write dedications to all the people in my life who have been so incredibly supportive of my writing.
What does your son say about Mom, The Author?
He has told me with sincerity, on a few occasions, that his favorite books are Before You Were Here, Mi Amor and The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred. That always moves me. My son has the podcast of my first book on our IPod. He sometimes plays it and really smiles. When he was three and the advance copy of Before You Were Here, Mi Amor arrived, I showed him his name in the dedication and he ran around our apartment excitedly yelling, “I’m in the book!” I’ll never forget that.
Was there an adult who encouraged you? How can we encourage the children in our lives to fulfill their dreams?
Absolutely, my mom. In terms of how my mom encouraged me, she always tried to guide me to my passion without defining any singular goal. She made suggestions and provided information, always letting me know different ways she thought I could achieve my goals. Everything had value to her, yet at the same time, she didn’t fawn over material that she thought wasn’t very good. She gave warm, encouraging, constructive feedback while I was a child and she still does today.
What's the most difficult/joyful aspect of writing for you?
The most difficult aspect is the work/family life balance as I’m sure it is for any working parent. My son is young and I want to prioritize quality time with him and my husband while still having quality time left over to write. The other difficult aspect is the amount of promotion and marketing required of authors and illustrators today. I think the Internet has tremendously enhanced communication opportunities; however, it has also added to the daily workload of promotion.
Can you leave us with your favorite quote?
I have always liked poet John Dunne’s “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.”
Thank you Sam.
How to win: Become a follower and leave me a comment about who you'd give this beautiful book to. Contest is open until Monday December 13th at 5 pm Pacific.