Sunday, June 4, 2017

Europolitan Mentor Interviews Part 4: Jill Esbaum

by Patti Buff

Welcome to our interview series with the Europolitan Mentors! The Europolitan Mentorship program pairs qualified, inspirational mentors with aspiring authors and illustrators, who write in English, to help bring them closer to publication, or to publication at a higher level. Each mentor will select one mentee from all applicants.

This six-month online one-on-one program provides mentees the opportunity to work personally with and learn from a successful professional with teaching experience and a proven track record in children’s literature.

In this series of articles, you will get a closer look at the 2017 mentors; who they are, their writing journey and what potential mentees should know about them. For more information about the program and how to apply, visit the website.

Our next interview is with Jill Esbaum. Jill is mentoring picture books, both fiction and nonfiction.

Jill Esbaum writes picture books filled with humor and heart on her family farm in eastern Iowa, USA. Recent titles include IF A T. REX CRASHES YOUR BIRTHDAY PARTY, TEENY TINY TOAD (starred review, Kirkus; also on their Best Books of 2016 list), and ELWOOD BIGFOOT – WANTED: BIRDIE FRIENDS (NAIBA 2015 Pick of the Lists). Her books have been nominated for state awards (TOM'S TWEET in Iowa and South Dakota; STANZA in Indiana; I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!, in Nebraska), named to the International Reading Association’s Notable Children’s Book list (STE-E-E-E-EAMBOAT A-COMIN'!) and the International Youth Library’s White Ravens List (I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!); and featured as a New York Times Editor’s Choice (I HATCHED!). Scholastic Book Fairs have offered both I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO! and ELWOOD BIGFOOT, as well as many of her nonfiction titles. Coming soon are FRANKENBUNNY (Sterling, Nov 2017) and HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR (Dial, Feb 2018).

Her nonfiction books, all published by National Geographic Kids, include five titles in the PICTURE THE SEASONS series, four ANGRY BIRDS PLAYGROUND books, three titles in the BIG BOOK OF – series, many books in the EXPLORE MY WORLD series, and a picture book with renowned photographer Frans Lanting, ANIMAL GROUPS.

Jill created a group blog of fellow picture book writers and illustrators called Picture Book Builders( She visits schools, teaches at conferences around the U.S., and co-hosts the Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Workshop in eastern Iowa each summer. She has twice served as a mentor for SCBWI-Iowa. Find more information at her website,

Welcome Jill! And thank you so much for being a Europolitan mentor! I always like to know about how people became writers so could you share with us your path to writing. Was this something you’d always done or did you pick it up along the way?

I didn’t begin writing until the youngest of my three kids was in kindergarten. We’d always read lots of picture books and had moved into chapter books. The more kid lit I read, the more I itched to try it myself. Once I began, I was hooked! About that time, my mom found a story I’d written at age 7. Talk about serendipity. That story brought back a rush of memories. As a child, I’d loved storytelling. I felt like I was coming back to my real self somehow––after a 30-year absence. Oh, wait. This is what I was supposed to do with my life? How had I let myself get so sidetracked?!

Another late-bloomer! I love it! Since writing and publishing are two different beasts, could you share with us how you first became published and what you’ve learned over the years about publishing?

I took a basic how-to-write-for-children night class (one evening/week for 6 weeks) at a local community college, and when that was finished, a handful of us continued meeting monthly to critique one another’s work. The class instructor, author David Collins, was part of the group, too. When he saw me subbing picture book manuscript after picture book manuscript and getting nowhere, he gently suggested I back up the truck and try to crack the magazine market. That worked out beautifully for me. Those acceptances of my poems, stories, and nonfiction convinced me that I was on the right track––or nearing it, anyway.

I kept submitting picture book stories, of course, making every mistake possible.

  • I sent out stories too soon. Habitually. 
  • I once sent out an unfinished story, because it was so clever and funny an editor would surely help me come up with an ending, right? 
  • I carefully submitted to two editors who had asked for more of my work…and learned two weeks later that I’d mixed up the cover letters in which I’d detailed why I thought each of those particular editors was the perfect match for my story. (One returned the mismatched package to me. The other did not.) 
  • I made a fool of myself at my first in-person editorial critique. (Exhausted from two sleepless nights, I slammed a Coke right before my time slot, then couldn’t shut up.) 

But every mistake brought me closer to an acceptance. Four and a half years after I started submitting, I got the phone call that FSG wanted to buy my Stink Soup.

I hyperventilated. The editor laughed and told me he’d wait while I found a paper bag. Unbelievably, this was the patient editor with whom I’d botched my first one-on-one the year before.

Twenty years of writing and submitting to a bazillion markets has taught me too many things to list, but the most important would likely be this: We MUST develop the ability to see our own work with objective eyes. It’s tough, tough, tough. What helped me the most in that area was five years of teaching for the Institute of Children’s Literature. Every week brought 15-18 student submissions that I always critiqued before working on my own writing. By the time I finished those, I was tired and crabby, and if anything in my own work wasn’t “perfect,” I had no trouble trashing it.

The most important thing I’ve learned about publishing itself is that it’s impossible to guess what editors/publishers want to see. We simply have to put our best work out there and hope good things follow.

Those are horror stories, but with a twist happy ending! What role did mentors, critique groups or an MFA program play in your creative career?

Jill and her dog, Brodie
Two early teachers/mentors of mine (sadly, both gone now) were David Collins, who, in that original
night class, stressed the necessity of developing thick skin, and nonfiction author Mel Boring, who led three or four summer workshops I attended. Both saw promise in my writing, and Mel even went so far as to corner my husband at an end-of-the-week workshop dinner to tell him I had what it took. That was when I’d only sold a few poems, and it did more to boost my confidence (and my husband’s confidence in me) than anything prior.

I have neither a four-year degree nor an MFA. Everything I know about writing was learned through my own reading, through practice and failure, and through SCBWI. There has been nothing––nothing––that has helped me more in my career than attending conferences. I’ve met some of my best friends, met editors I’ve later worked with, and soaked up untold amounts of writing wisdom from agents, editors, and authors/illustrators. I know for a fact I would not be where I am today if not for SCBWI conferences. I even met my first editor at a retreat! Whether you’re published or not, there’s absolutely nothing like walking into a big room filled with people who share your passion of writing for kids. People who get you.

These days, my online critique group, made up of fellow SCBWI members I admire, respect, and trust, includes Andrea Donahue, Pat Zietlow Miller, Lisa Morlock, and Norene Paulson. They. Are. Awesome.

Yay for SCBWI! What excites you most about being a mentor for the SCBWI Europolitan Mentor Program?

Working with and encouraging a promising new talent! I used to do private picture book critiques, and there isn't much that beats the feeling of learning that a story I critiqued has gone on to find a publishing home. Too cool! Always makes me feel like a new auntie or something.

What else should potential mentees know about you?

I hope this interview convinces potential mentees that I was once in their shoes, wanting to be published, searching for that elusive “secret,” and not sure how I was falling short. My critiques are kind, but I will not lie to you and will do the very best I can to get your stories to the point that an editor won’t be able to resist.

Sample of Jill's Books

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
Nadine can talk a blue streak, and one day she tells a real whopper: she isn't afraid of anything--no siree! Then her friends call her bluff, and Nadine must enter. . .The Deep. Dark. Woods. Only the woods aren't so scary after all, until the sun sets, that is, and Nadine can't find her friends. What is this boastful bovine to do? Run around in blind terror? Plummet off a cliff? Crash into a stream? Check, check, and check. But is all lost? Doubtful. After all, she is cow, hear her MOOOOOOOOO!

*2015 Crystal Kite Award winner, Midwest Region, SCBWI

*Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Choices (Best of the Year List), 2014

*Louisiana Reading Assoc. Children’s Choice nominee, 2014-2015

*Picture Book Oscars - Best Female Character in a 2014 Picture Book: Nadine

*2016-2017 Nebraska Golden Sower award nominee

*2015 White Ravens List

*Selected for Scholastic Book Clubs

Sterling Publishing 2016

You never know what will happen when a T. Rex crashes your birthday party. Sure, you'll be super excited when he turns up at your door. But then he’ll stomp. He’ll ROAR. He’ll look at you as if he’s wondering how you taste with a little mustard. In the end, though, you just may find yourself asking him to come back next year! This delightfully whimsical picture book has a fun twist kids will love.

National Geographic Children's Books 2015

Introduce young readers to some of the world's most interesting and important people in this bold and lively first biography book. More than 100 colorful photos are paired with age-appropriate text featuring profiles of each person, along with fascinating facts about about their accomplishments and contributions. This book inspires kids about a world of possibilities and taps into their natural curiosity about fascinating role models from education advocate Malala Yousafzai to astronaut Neil Armstrong.

National Geographic Children's Books July 2017
In this charming picture book, little kids will learn all about sea otters, including their social behavior, communication, diet, and, of course, playtime! These engaging Explore My World picture books on subjects kids care about combine simple stories with compelling photography. They invite little kids to take their first big steps toward understanding the world around them and are just the thing for parents and kids to curl up with and read aloud.

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