Friday, July 17, 2009

Interview With Children's Picture Book Author Susan Chodakiewitz

By Dorothy Thompson

Susan Chodakiewitz is a writer, composer and producer. She is the founder of Booksicals Children's Books - Encouraging the love of reading through the arts. Through her company Booksicals she has created the Booksicals on Stage literacy program which is currently presenting musical performances of the picture book Too Many Visitors for One Little House at schools, libraries, and special events. Too Many Visitors for One Little House is Susan's debut book.

Thank you for this interview, Susan. Can you tell us briefly what your latest book, Too Many Visitors for One Little House, is all about?

Too Many Visitors for One Little House is a children´s picture book about 3 crabby neighbors, a new family on the block, a big family reunion and the importance of being included.

Can you tell us who or what was the inspiration behind your book?

Too Many Visitors for One Little House is based on the crazy summer we moved into our new house in Beverly Hills and ALL THESE VISITORS came to stay.

First my sister arrived in a giant BOUNDER (the biggest camper on the market) with 4 children, 1 husband, 1 housekeeper, a set of grandparents and an uncle from Russia. They brought a ton of blankets, pillows, piles of laundry, toys and lots of clothing.

Then my sister-in-law called that she was arriving from Houston. She was getting a divorce and was moving to LA. Where else could she go? She arrived with 3 kids, a housekeeper, a tons of suitcases and lots of psychological baggage.

Then my mother-in-law who was in a wheel chair moved in with her nurse.

Things were not quite complete until a scraggly dog followed me home from the supermarket one day while I was walking home pushing a giant wagon filled with food for all the VISITORS! The dog decided to camp out on our front lawn for 2 weeks until we brought him in.

The neighbors were NOT at all happy to see their once quiet neighborhood transform into a cacophonous carnival of celebration. The police were summoned anonymously on several occasions.

It took 16 years for the story to germinate and finally be set free as the picture book: Too Many Visitors for One Little House.

Is this your first published book and if so, can you tell us your experiences in finding a publisher for it?

I'm thrilled to say, Too Many Visitors for One Little House is my first published book.

I wrote several stories prior to Visitors including the first story I wrote together with my niece Lauren Grabois who is a writer and school teacher. Lauren and I both had quirky Beta fish. My fish, Jaws, was anorexic and would spit up its food. Lauren´s fish, Mr. Blueberry, was paranoid and would always hide under a rock. This became the basis for our first story: Mr. Blueberry and the Fish From Down the Street.

We got really good feedback after presenting Mr. Blueberry at a SCBWI conference showcase in Los Angeles. I started pitching the story to publishers. I only got rejection letters back. I got discouraged and decided to move on to a new project. When the inspiration to write Too Many Visitors for One Little House came to me I wrote it as a counting story from the family´s point of view.

I sent it to out several publishers but only received rejection letters back. I was very disappointed but I believed in the story. I was not giving up.

At the next SCBWI conference I was determined to get advice on how to improve the story and was fortunate to get a critique from Editor Allyn Johnston while she was still at Harcourt. Allyn advised me to get rid of the counting and take out all the character names.

I discussed with her the problem I was having with point of view and together we discovered that the story was really about the neighbors and their need to be included. I asked Allyn if she would consider the book for Harcourt after I made the revisions. She said YES. I was elated.I went home and revised the story, changed the point of view, took out the counting and tweaked the language. I sent the revised story to Allyn at Harcourt. She sent me back a nice letter saying Harcourt decided to PASS. I was very quite disappointed. But I still believed in the story. I was not giving up. I continued to query the book though now I started seriously thinking about self publishing.

One day I turned for advice to a former NY editor who now had a free-lance company called Picture Book People. I sent her several of my stories and asked her to advise me. If I were to self publish which story did she think was worth the effort. She read all the stories and replied that in her opinion Too Many Visitors for One Little House was a strong story with heart and had the most potential for success.

So now all I had to decide was if and when to make the publishing plunge.

Since I compose music and lyrics for musical theater I was looking for a way to combine my passion for musical theater with my love of writing of picture books. In the process of revising Too Many Visitors for One Little House I started thinking up songs for the characters. One morning I woke up the words BOOKSICALS in my head. I suddenly realized I had found my path!

That´s how I decided to start my own line of books called Booksicals with the mission of creating and publishing books that would encourage a love for reading through the arts. Too Many Visitors for One Little House would be Booksicals debut picture book.

And that´s how I found my publisher.

How has your publisher been to work with?

Even though I am my own publisher I am very strict about revising and re-writing. I get outside help from free-lance editors and have a business partner who critiques my work and helps me to get to the heart of the story.

I really enjoyed the publishing process with Too Many Visitors and especially enjoyed working with illustrator Veronica Walsh.

When you work with an outside publishing company writers and illustrators hardly ever get to confer with each other. Since I played BOTH the role of writer and that of publisher I had to work closely with the illustrator.

As a preparation for character sketches, together Veronica and I discussed characters, their relationship to one and other, character flaws, pet peeves, and lots of things that I did not put in the actual story. This was a very interesting process for me and taught me a lot. I compare the process to that of director working with the actors to develop the back story in order to better understand the characters and bring out their nuances.

Can you tell us how long it took you to write and publish your book?

I wrote the actual story out in one sitting. Then I spent about a year revising and re-writing to get it to the level where I would consider publishing it.

Once the decision to publish was made it took about one year before the book was released.

Do you have any words of inspiration for other writers who would like to be wearing your shoes?

If you believe in a story pursue it. Don´t give up.

In my case rejection was the catalyst that led me to create Booksicals and set me on this exciting new path.

I understand that you are touring with Pump Up Your Book Promotion in July via a virtual book tour. Can you tell us all why you chose a virtual book tour to promote your book online?

Virtual book tours are a great way for writers to reach online readers, parents, consumers, teachers and anyone who loves children´s books. Pump Up Your Book Promotion does all the research and knows the blogs that are the most suitable for your genre of book. I think it´s a great publicity and marketing opportunity.

What´s next for you?

With the goal of inspiring a love for reading through the arts, I recently formed the Booksicals Repertory Company and created a musical version of Too Many Visitors for One Little House. We had a debut performance of Too Many Visitors for One Little House at the Robertson Library in Los Angeles on June 2. A mom who was at the performance emailed me that evening that her 2 year begged to have Too Many Visitors for One Little House read to her 4 times before going to bed. She told me that her older daughter, age 9, went to the Booksicals website as soon as she got home to hear excerpts of the music and wanted to get the CD of the book (soon to be available on itunes.)

This level of excitement about reading is exactly what I set out to accomplish with Booksicals. In the near future I am hoping to partner with both corporate and individual sponsors to help bring Too Many Visitors for One Little House performances and books to kids in underprivileged school districts, homeless shelters, and pediatric hospitals.

The decision to write a sequel to Too Many Visitors for One Little House came about in an interesting way. At a two author readings in Arizona the kids asked me to tell them what my next book will be about. When I asked them if they wanted to read more books about the family on El Camino Street they all said YES! I asked them to tell me which character they wanted more books about and unanimously they shouted -- the dog!

So that´s when I decided I would write a sequel. BUT the scraggly dog needs a name! I've posted a contest on the Booksicals website for children to help me name the dog for the next book. The contest can be accessed at

Thank you for this interview, Susan, and much success to you!

Dorothy Thompson is CEO/Founder of Pump Up Your Book Promotion PR, a public relations agency specializing in online book promotion. You can visit her website at

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