Linda Ashman is the author of many acclaimed picture books—more than forty to date—and The Nuts & Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Her books have been included on the ‘best of the year’ lists of The New York Times, Parenting and Child magazines, the New York Public Library and others, and have been translated into many languages.
When she’s not writing, Linda conducts writing workshops, gives presentations at conferences and schools and contributes to a group blog about writing at Picturebookbuilders.com. After many years spent in New York, Los Angeles, and Denver, she and her family now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Meet Linda.
You are an author, but is it your day job? Yes! I’ve been a mostly-full-time author for about 25 years. Which doesn’t mean I spend all day writing. Some days I might be doing research for a new story idea, preparing for a presentation, filling out an author questionnaire for a publisher, reviewing an illustrator’s sketches or (last week) brainstorming titles for two upcoming picture books (titles can be challenging!).
Did you always want to be an author? No—I had no idea what kind of work I wanted to do. After college, I worked as a real estate market analyst in New York and Los Angeles but didn’t find it fulfilling. I went back to school and got a graduate degree in Urban Planning—but still didn’t love the work. Meanwhile I was going through the interview process for another job I really wanted. When I found out I didn’t get it, I told my husband, “All I ever wanted to do was write children’s books!” That was news to both of us. But with Jack’s encouragement, I quit my job and started writing.
What is your most recent book and what inspired you to write it? When the Storm Comes was published last summer. Written in rhyme, it’s a series of questions answered by various animals and humans as they prepare for, wait out and recover from a storm. It was inspired by the view from my office window during one of the impressive thunderstorms we have here in North Carolina. Normally when I look outside, I see lots of wildlife—squirrels, chipmunks, deer, rabbits, various birds. But during this downpour, it was very quiet. I thought: Where’d everybody go? So, I started researching how different creatures—mammals, fish, birds and insects—respond to storms. Now that I think about it, I have animals to thank for quite a few of my books!
How do you hope your book uplifts those who read it? In several ways. First, I hope it gives kids a sense of how we’re all connected—to our fellow humans, to the particular landscape we occupy and the creatures who share it. Second, I hope it shows the value of community—how we support each other in times of difficulty, whether that’s a thunderstorm or the viral storm we’ve endured over the last year. Third, storms can be scary! I hope the book is comforting to kids and offers a way for families and teachers to talk about and prepare for whatever storms are likely to come their way.
What are you most excited about with this book? I was really excited to learn that When the Storm Comes was selected to be part of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. This is a wonderful early literacy program that mails a free book each month to children from birth to age five, regardless of family income. Dolly started the program with a single county in Tennessee and it’s since grown to an international program distributing more than one million books each month. Families can find out more at the Imagination Library website.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to succeed in your professional industry? I wrote The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books in response to the many questions I’ve been asked over the years, and also have a list of tips on the Resources for Writers page of my website. But my first word of advice is always this: Read! If you want to write picture books, be sure to read lots of recent ones. Really study them. Type the text into a Word document and note the page breaks. Do a word count. Note how short the text is, and how the illustrations contribute to the storytelling. If you’re serious about writing for kids, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI). They have a tremendous amount of resources, including directories of publishers and literary agents, plus local chapters and events (held virtually over the last year).
How do you handle setbacks and criticism? It’s never fun when a manuscript gets rejected, a review is less than stellar, or one of your books goes out of print. Publishing is a tough business, and these realities are part of being an author. Does it sting? Yes. Do I sulk? Sometimes. But dwelling on the disappointments isn’t very productive. So, after venting to my husband (definitely) and going for a walk (maybe), I do my best to put the disappointment aside and get back to work.
And, of course, if the criticism comes in the form of editorial comments from someone I trust—say, my agent, an editor, or my husband—I consider it carefully. Or if a manuscript gets rejected by multiple editors, I pay attention to what they’re saying. I may not always be eager to hear it, but that kind of critical feedback can be very valuable.
How do you structure your day and make time for writing? Although I admire those writers who write every day, I’m not one of them. I tend to be more project oriented. If I’m working on a particular story, say, or preparing to teach a writing workshop, I mostly focus on that. Like many people, I struggled creatively in 2020. In addition to pandemic angst, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment was pretty rough, so I spent much of last year focused on his health and recovery. Jack is doing really well now, thank goodness, so I’m starting to carve out time for new writing projects again. I normally work on creative stuff for a few hours in the morning and/or afternoon, in between walking the dogs, taking care of other writing-related business, running errands, and getting some form of exercise (usually walking and/or an online yoga class).
What do you find most fulfilling in the career that you’ve chosen? When my son was young, we’d make regular trips to the library and bring home stacks of picture books to read together. Some were beautiful, some made us laugh out loud, and some included phrases that remain part of our family lexicon to this day. That time spent reading picture books together is magical. So it’s very gratifying when I hear from parents that their family loves one of my books, that they’ve read it so often their child has memorized the words. It also gives me a little thrill when I hear a book is going to be published in another language, and that kids in Japan, China, Korea, Germany, Turkey and other countries might be reading my books.
What book uplifts you? I often find memoirs uplifting. It’s inspiring to read about the trials people have endured and obstacles they’ve overcome (or not). I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Becoming. I love hearing Michelle Obama narrate her own story. She’s honest and authentic and down to earth in addressing issues so many women struggle with, whether it’s figuring out your professional path, dealing with fertility problems, or balancing work, family, community commitments and time for yourself. I usually listen to it while walking, and it feels like I’m chatting with a friend (albeit an incredibly accomplished friend who’s doing all the talking!).
As for fiction, I found Anxious People by Fredrick Backman uplifting. It was poignant, quirky, thought-provoking and often funny.
You can connect with Linda at her website.
Images Courtesy of Linda Ashman