WILL WRITE FOR COOKIES
INSIGHT – INFORMATION – INSPIRATION
MATT FORREST ESENWINE
I met today’s Will Write for Cookies guest at the New England SCBWI Conference in 2017, I believe. I was helping out in the Meet-the-Mentors room on the first afternoon of the conference – and there were published authors, editors, and agents who had agreed to make themselves available to chat with attendees. Luckily for me, most of the attendees had not arrived yet and so I was able to spend a little time with some of the mentors/faculty. Matt was so generous with sharing his experiences in publishing. And so when I found out that he was adding yet another published book to his credit, I knew I wanted to invite him to share some of his writing journey here on Picture Books Help Kids Soar.
As a former radio broadcaster, Matt Forrest Esenwine spent a good part of his life writing and producing commercials, comedy bits, and news stories. He also wrote poetry, which was published in various national journals and anthologies including the Donald Hall tribute, Except for Love (Encircle, 2019). Little did Matt know all this short-form writing would lead to his debut picture book, Flashlight Night (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2017), which received numerous positive reviews including a Kirkus star, and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the Best Books for Kids 2017. Matt now has a dozen books out or under contract, including Once Upon Another Time (Beaming Books, 2021), co-authored with Charles Ghigna (aka, Father Goose®), a book that ALA’s Booklist calls, “a necessary addition to picture book collections.”
Meanwhile, his children’s poetry can be found in anthologies like The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (National GeographicChildren’s Books, 2015), Night Wishes (Eerdmans, 2020), and Construction People (Wordsong, 2020), chosen by Kirkus as one of the Best Picture Books of the Year. Matt lives in New Hampshire with his wife, kids, and more pets than he has fingers, so don’t ask him to count. Connect with Matt and order personally-signed books at MattForrest.com.
ME: Welcome, Matt! We are so excited to have you here today! Thank you for stopping by to chat and for the generous giveaway of a copy of your newest book, I AM TODAY. I know everyone is excited to learn more about you and your writing journey.
Who were your favorite authors/illustrators when you were a child?
MATT: As a kid, I never paid attention to authors – I was more interested in the individual books themselves. I can say my first book of poetry was “A Secret Place and Other Poems” by Dorothy Aldis, which I absolutely loved. I didn’t realize at the time how much of an impact that it would have on my love of poetry and my style of writing. In fact, it was only once I had become fully entrenched in the world of kidlit that I even recognized what an incredible talent Aldis was, and the extent of her contributions to children’s poetry.
I also loved the picture book “Mr. Snitzel’s Cookies” by Jane Flory, about a poor baker who welcomes into his home a beggar – and mysteriously finds all the ingredients he needs to continue his livelihood. I’ve always loved cooking and baking, and this book helped instill in me the importance of kindness. Other favorite books were “The Land of Noom” by Johnny Gruelle (of Raggedy Ann fame), all the Hardy Boys books, and pretty much anything ever written by Isaac Asimov, whose fantastic “Foundation” book series is now a TV series on AppleTV.
ME: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
MATT: Well, I’ve been writing forever, so that’s a bit hard to answer. While cleaning out my parents’ house in preparation for its sale two years ago, I discovered a short “book” of poetry I had made for my mom when I was about 10-11 years old! But the one thing I wish I knew was that…writing can be a career. As a kid – even as a teenager and college student – I never thought of writing as an actual job. And I don’t think a lot of kids do. When you ask most young people what they want to be when they grow up, they’ll usually say doctor, teacher, firefighter, construction worker, etc. – but how many ever say, writer?? We spend years telling kids they need to learn to read and write but never tell them it’s something they can do for a living.
So when I do school visits, I try to impress upon students that if they like writing, if they enjoy telling stories, if they can’t stop doodling or drawing pictures…those are all worthwhile pursuits! Whether it’s writing children’s books or website pages or owner’s manuals or movie scripts (or radio commercials, like I did when I was in broadcasting), writing can be an actual career. Art can be an actual career. Creativity, in all its many forms and configurations, can be an actual career!
ME: Where do you like to write – inside, outside, special room, laptop, pen and paper?
MATT: I’ll get ideas anywhere and everywhere, but I prefer to write at my computer in my office. I don’t know if it’s because it’s my own space or if it’s because I can type faster than I can write by hand (probably the latter), but I’m definitely more at ease, more creative, and more productive at the ol’ desktop.
ME: When do you write – early morning, late in the day, middle of the night, on schedule, as the muse strikes?
MATT: Whenever I can! I’m a stay-at-home dad as well as a voiceover talent, and even though the two kids are now back in school (we had to homeschool them last year due to Covid) I still have responsibilities like most folks: dishes, laundry, garden, pets to feed, errands to run, wood to cut and split. But I try to get a lot of the ‘busy work’ out of the way in the morning, once the kids are on their busses, and then I can sit down and focus on my tasks. Being un-agented, I have to submit all my manuscripts myself, so some days I’m writing cover letters more than picture books; other days I’m voicing TV commercials or video narrations and writing takes a back seat altogether. Sometimes I even write at night, which is actually a very creative time for my brain.
ME: Why do you write for children?
MATT: The short answer: Because writing for adults is boring.
The long answer: Because I’ve written for adults (primarily poetry, and I still do) but have always felt like my poetry wasn’t “adult” enough, that it wasn’t confounding and obtuse enough to be accepted by mainstream academia. You may recall, I got into children’s literature not through writing picture books but through writing poetry; it was only after my children’s poems began getting published in anthologies like “Lullaby & Kisses Sweet (Abrams Appleseed, 2015) and “The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (N.G. Children’s Books, 2015) that the picture books followed.
I grew up on Dorothy Aldis, Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, and others who used classic poetic forms and rhymed and had fun with their words – that’s why we call it wordplay and not wordWORK, after all. But so much of modern contemporary poetry just seemed to lack the spark and thrill of what I enjoyed most about poetry. Once I discovered the vast spectrum of children’s poetry being published, however, I felt like I had found my voice – and my audience!
ME: Also, if you have any thoughts or advice for aspiring writers, please share. As well as anything else you want to talk about that parents, educators, writers, librarians might want to hear.
MATT: Aside from what I’ve already said, I think the best advice I can give to newcomers is to understand that this is a skill-based industry and it’s going to take you longer than you realize to learn the industry, learn the craft, learn the market, and learn how to navigate the whole thing. I see so many people submitting to one or two publishers, and after a year they’re fed up and either want to quit writing altogether or go the self-publishing route. Take your time, folks! This is not a business for people who crave instant gratification. My book “Once Upon Another Time” (Beaming Books, 2021) went through about a dozen revisions and 25 rejections before editor Naomi Krueger saw it and jumped at the chance to publish it – and that was with the gravitas of my co-author, Charles Ghigna’s, name attached to it. Persistence, patience, and tenacity are all far more important than talent because even if you have all the talent in the world and have just written the Most Amazing Novel in History, no one is ever going to read it if you give up after your first couple of rejections.
This is also something I remind students. Once you’ve written a story or poem, be prepared to revise it again and again. It may be good, but it can better; and once it is better, it can still probably be better! It is a rare poem or picture book that can be written in one sitting and be good enough for submission. As Jane Yolen says, Do. The Work. Take your time. Trying to do things quickly and without waiting only leads to less-than-stellar work. Do it well, do it better, and then do it again. And above all else…hang in there! As the old saying goes, the only difference between a published author and an unpublished author is one didn’t stop trying.
ME: YES! YES! YES! The only failure is the failure to keep trying! I love all of your insights, Matt! Thank you so much for all of these valuable words of wisdom. And I know you’ve got a few more sweet thoughts for us…with a special recipe that we’ll all be able to use this holiday season.
MATT: This is definitely a favorite at our house and they are a traditional Swedish Christmas cookie!
1 stick butter, softened
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup molasses or dark corn syrup
1 T. each ground cinnamon & ground ginger
1 ½ t. ground cloves
1 t. ground nutmeg
1 t. baking soda
2 T. cream or milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar, syrup, spices, and baking soda until blended. On low speed, add cream, then flour, just until blended – do not overmix! Chill at least 30 minutes, or even a couple days in advance.
When ready to bake, heat oven to 350 F. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 1/8-inch, cut into shapes, and place 1-inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 6-8 minutes, until firm and set. Let rest a few minutes, then transfer to rack to cook.
Optional: Dip in white chocolate to add a festive touch, and a nice creamy balance to the spice of the cookies.
HURRAY! Thank you so much for stopping by, Matt. And thank you for the recipe…I love getting new ideas for Holiday baking!
Dear friends, please don’t forget that the best way to help your favorite authors is to buy their books, review their books, tell friends about their books, and ask your local library to purchase copies of their books. And remember to leave a comment to be entered in the giveaway of a copy of I AM TODAY!
By the way…we are one of the first stops on Matt’s Book Blog Tour. Here’s a list of where he will be:
I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!