Friday, February 8, 2013

HIGH FIVE #25: Interview with Rob Sanders - Cowboy Christmas

Today, I have with me picture book author, Rob Sanders. He wrote the fabulous Cowboy Christmas! Here’s a big HIGH FIVE congratulations to you! Yee-haw!

Title:  Cowboy Christmas
Author:  Rob Sanders
Illustrator:  John Manders
Publisher:  Golden Books
Release Date:  September 2012
Word count:  677

SummaryThree weathered cowboys—Dwight, Darryl, and Dub—are stuck out on the range at Christmastime, roping steers and wrestling longhorns. They sure are lonesome! But a wonderful surprise awaits them back at camp—and it's just what they need for a rip-roarin', merry-makin' cowboy Christmas.

And since I OWN this delightful tale, I can say that I do, indeed, truly adore it! (Not jest speculatin' mind ya.)

Question ONE: 
What are three of your favorite picture books? Just three mind you. Being a kindergarten teacher, I know this is going to be a tough one for you.

Hundreds of picture books are staring at me from the shelves in my office. Each is calling, “Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!” I’m going to make myself choose books in three categories: an oldie, one I love to read to kids when I’m teaching writing lessons, and an inventive one. I could list a hundred favorites and give a reason for each one, but I’ll go with these three for now.

  1. As far as an oldie-but-goodie I would choose Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas. The book was published in 1992—which is eons ago in picture book years. The story is sensitive, funny, quirky, and it causes me to celebrate the imagination of childhood and gives me hope. The book is a classic—well-written and beautiful illustrated. (This is how I want to write when I grow up!)
  2. One of my favorite picture books to read to kids and to use in writing lessons is The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend, illustrated by John Manders (who also illustrated Cowboy Christmas). The text is clever and the illustrations are hilarious. Kids love it. The book is filled with writing craft, so I can teach lesson after lesson from it—plot, problem, conflict, rising action, a main character we love, purposeful repetition, the rule of three, vivid verbs, surprise ending, and more. (Of course, if I can teach lessons from it, I can also learn from it.)
  3. Press Here, written and illustrated by HervĂ© Tullet, is an ingenious book. On the one hand, you wonder Why didn’t I think of that? On the other hand, you know I could never have thought of that! Sparse text and colorful dots make up the book. But what seems like a simple book is actually an interactive experience for the reader. The book teaches concepts of direction, color, number, and more, while giving the reader a fun reading (dare I say playing) experience time and time again. (I’ll have whatever HervĂ© is drinking—no, make it a double!)

I'm definitely going to have to check out book #2. Sounds amazing.

Question TWO: 
Despite not having any children of your own, how do you feel that you were drawn to write for them?

A children’s author doesn’t have to have children any more than a “mail man” has to be a man. The fact is that I’ve spent my entire life with children. While still in high school I was teaching children in summer camps,
tutoring kids in math, working with children at my church, leading children’s choirs, and more. I majored in elementary education, and earned a master’s degree in religious education. I worked for fifteen years writing, editing, and developing products for children at major Christian publishers. I’ve never stopped working with children. Today I teach creative writing in an elementary school with nearly 900 students and I have two great nieces and a great nephew (Cowboy Christmas is dedicated to them.) Why am I drawn to write for children? Because it’s who I am.

Awesome! You definitely have more experience with kids than I do! (And I've got two little ones...) You're job sounds like so much FUN, too!

Question THREE: 
How might teachers use your book in the classroom? Did you write your book with teachers in mind? Do you have any lesson plans?

I did not write Cowboy Christmas with teachers in mind. That would be a fatal approach in my opinion. The teacher and school market is a small (albeit important) sliver of the picture book market. I write for children. If the story is one kids will love, their parents, grandparents, librarians, and teachers will buy it. So I try to be kid-centric in everything I do.

As far as resources for teachers—I created a readers’ theater version of Cowboy Christmas and wrote Cowboy Christmas—The Musical to be used for school holiday programs. Both are available on my web site. I also provided on my web site a list of writing craft and elaboration strategies used in my book for teachers, along with activities, recipes, and more for kids.

I have used the book for read alouds, writing craft lessons, and even taught children about Freytag’s plot pyramid by using Cowboy Christmas.

With any book, the uses for teaching are only limited by one’s imagination!

I agree. Read alouds, recipes, and more, oh my!

Question FOUR: 
What was your road to publication like? Can you talk a bit about revisions, submitting to publishers?

I wrote the first draft of Cowboy Christmas in a weekend. I revised it for five months. I took it to the critique group I attended at the time, and paid for two professional critiques (which I highly recommend). I took the manuscript to SCBWI, LA and paid for a consultation. At the point, I had not submitted it anywhere. I was assigned to Diane Muldrow, editor of Golden Books/Random House, for my consultation. As luck would have it, Diane’s father and grandfather were cowboys and she loved the story. But it needed more work. She offered to look at it again after I revised. Two weeks after our consultation, I mailed the revised manuscript. Two months later the book was acquired. Two years later Cowboy Christmas was released. Of course, during those two years, Diane and I did more revisions and edits—sometimes pumping up the cowboy lingo, or working specifically on verbs, or cutting some lines that we knew were now being shown in art.

What about getting an agent?

As far as agents go, I love mine. But I didn’t get an agent until after my first sale. (That’s usually the case for picture book authors.) My agent has now helped me get a two-book deal with HarperCollins, and there is talk of a sequel to Cowboy Christmas. My agent is also shopping around other manuscripts for me and helps me think strategically about my career. My agent has gotten my work into places closed to unsolicited submissions and has a personal relationship with many editors that helps him know what manuscript fits what editor/publisher. By the way, my agent is Rubin Pfeffer of the East West Literary Agency.

Can you tell us a bit about any illustrator notes you may have used, and how your title may have evolved?

The Cowboy Christmas title stayed exactly the same from start to finish. But that’s not always the case. We went through nearly forty different names for the main character of my two book HarperCollins deal. Her final name is Ruby Rose.

Every editor has a different philosophy about art notes. Diane Muldrow believes picture book manuscripts should be cinematic, and she likes her writers to develop an entirely separate document spelling out specific art notes for each page. These notes are really meant for the author to see if his/her story is developing and moving, if there are page turns, if you just have talking heads instead of action, etc. But I sent my art notes to Diane with my manuscript for Cowboy Christmas. She sent the notes on to the art director, who subsequently sent them to the illustrator. Again, this is a rare occurrence.

I love hearing everyone's stories; they're all different. And so inspiring, too!

Question FIVE: What are your top three writing tips you can offer to writers (and teachers) seeking publication? 

TIP 1: Write. And write a lot. Many writers talk about writing, read about writing, blog about writing, but never write. Don’t stay stuck on one story too long. Diversify. Be prolific. The more you write, the more you’ll discover and the more you learn about yourself and about writing.

TIP 2: Get connected. Join a critique group with people who will challenge and stretch you. Without a doubt you need to join SCBWI and attend regional and national meetings.

TIP 3: Have faith. Getting published takes patience, hard work, dedication, and perseverance. My agent’s favorite saying is: Keep your chin up and your fingers on the keyboard.


Rob’s web site.
Rob’s critique service.
Rob’s blog.
Cowboy Christmas book trailer.

Thank you so much for being with us today. 

TODAY'S QUESTION: Of Rob's three "favorite" picture books, which ones have you NOT read before?

Bonus: Here's another Christmas story, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.


  1. I have not read Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge or The Perfect Nest, but have already pinned them to my Pinterest Book List that serves as my guide when I go to the library. If Rob recommends them I plan to read them. I love Cowboy Christmas so much that I reviewed it on my blog on December 7th. Rob's teacher's guide for that book is a treasure trove for teachers. I read his blog religiously and have learned a ton from him. I look forward to reading every book he writes. Thanks for such a comprehensive interview, Christie. You did a fantastic job!

  2. Great interview, Christie! Rob, you are a pretty cool guy. And my new idol. It is my dream to have a 2-book deal in the works and talk of a sequel to my poor, lonely first book..... So cool.


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