Valerie’s debut book, LET’S DANCE!, comes out March 3rd. She was generous enough to give me an interview AND even let me read a pdf of the book! And let me be the first to tell you, this is not one you and your kiddos are going to want to miss!!
LET’S DANCE!, illustrated by Maine Diaz and published by Boyd Mills & Kane, is a rhyming, catchy, vibrant, celebration of dance. It features colorful illustrations and beautiful imagery of dancing children across the globe.
Now that you know a little more about this must read, let’s jump into the interview and learn how Valerie’s debut came to be!
1. Valerie, when did you know you wanted to make picture books?
Our nieces visit my husband and me for about a week in the summer and again right after Christmas. During their visit in December 2016, when Zorah was four and Anyah was two, I thought of two different story ideas in which each girl was the protagonist. After their visit that December, I wrote those stories. It was then that I decided to write other stories and investigate the possibility of having them published. That became one of my goals for 2017.
2. Can you share your process for writing? When do you find the time to write?
I write late at night and on weekends because I have a full-time job. Typically, I try to preserve a block of time (4 – 6 hours) on Sunday for writing, and I write most evenings from 9 or 10 p.m. – 12 or 1 a.m.
I’m not sure that I have a particular process, other than to make sure I do something writing -related every day. I have an ever-growing list of stories to write and those to revise, research to complete for a narrative non-fiction picture book I’m writing, contests/scholarships to apply for, agents to submit to, and, yes, blogger interview questions to respond to like these.
I need to keep working to accomplish everything on my list and sub-lists. I’m currently making a list for each month and then create two lists for each week (one for Monday – Thursday and the other for Friday – Sunday). I also write daily lists based on those lists and, inevitably, other things get added that weren’t on the original lists. I know those are a lot of lists, but they keep me organized and on top of things.
It’s been a challenge balancing time for writing and getting ready for the debut of Let’s Dance!and all that comes with that: planning my book launch event, arranging school and library visits, requesting reviews, and writing answers to interview questions. Fortunately, I’m enjoying the adventure!
3. What are your favorite picture books? Did you use any mentor texts while writing?
In the past couple of years, I’ve read about 250 picture books, and I have so many that I love. Some authors are standouts to me; I’ll read anything they’ve written! Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, Kevin Henkes, and Kelly Starling Lyons (my WNDB mentor) are talented, prolific writers. In addition to books by these authors, I highly recommend Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, and Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor. If you haven’t read these outstanding books yet, be sure you do!
I definitely use mentor texts when I write. For Let’s Dance!, Marianne McShane, a friend who is an author, storyteller, and retired librarian, suggested I read Summer Wonders by Bob Raczka as a mentor text, which I did. It helped significantly in revising the book.
4. Tell us a little about your debut book. What inspired you to write it?
Let’s Dance! is a book that celebrates dances from around the world and showcases the diverse children who enjoy them.
Whenever music is played, most children start to dance. Babies who can barely walk will sway and/or raise their hands. Whenever music is played, my nieces dance. When they were two and four, they even danced while brushing their teeth. Now at ages five and seven, they still love to dance! They definitely provided inspiration for this book.
My goal with this book was to show children from all walks – or dances – of life. I wanted to use dance to celebrate diversity – and to leave no doubt that dancing is indeed for everyone!
www.instagram.com/valeriebollingauthor/5. What was the road to publication like for you?
I had a very smooth road to publication with Let’s Dance! This book was accepted for publication six months after I started querying it. I didn’t have to make any revisions, except for deleting two stanzas (to fit the 32-page format), and – at my editor’s clever request – writing back matter (two-sentence descriptions for each dance).
So, that makes it all sound so easy and wonderful, right, Korrie? I have some statistics to share, however, that will show another side – the typical bumpy, banged-up road of publication.
• I started writing picture books in January 2017 and wrote the first draft of Let’s Dance! in May 2017. Therefore, it actually took a year and a half from the time I started writing (January 2017) to have a manuscript accepted for publication (July 2018) and a little over a year from the time I wrote Let’s Dance! to get “the call” (May 2017 – July 2018).
• I sent out 26 queries for Let’s Dance! before my editor, Jes Negrón, expressed interest.
• From June 2017 – December 2019, I have sent out over 100 queries for other stories, and Let’s Dance! is the only one that has been accepted for publication.
6. Do you have any new books in the works?
Yes, I do, Korrie. I currently have ideas for three new books. Unfortunately, I’ve been so busy with promoting Let’s Dance!, and with revising two other stories, that I haven’t had as much time for “new” writing as I’d hope.
My newest picture book is non-fiction. This is my first book in this genre, so I’m “studying” by reading articles and listening to videos about non-fiction and reading mentor texts (narrative non-fiction picture books). I don’t want to share details, at this point, but I’ll say that it’s about an amazing person. I’m confident people will want to hear her story, so I have to make sure the book is as amazing as she is, so it’ll be published.
7. What advice would you give to someone hoping to get their own book published?
First and foremost, WRITE! If you don’t write, you will not have a book that can be considered for publication. Here’s my 5-step plan:
4. Immerse yourself in writing opportunities and in the writing community by taking a course, joining SCBWI, going to conferences, joining a critique group, and participating in contests.
5. Continue to write … even when you face rejection.
Thanks so much to Valerie for all of this insight into the life of a debut author!! I hope it’s inspired you as much as it’s inspired me! To learn more about Valerie, please read her bio below. And remember: look for her book, LET’S DANCE! online and in stores on March 3rd!!
Connect with Valerie here:
Valerie Bolling has been an educator for over 25 years and a writer since age 4. She is a graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College and currently works as an Instructional Coach with middle and high school teachers.
In addition to writing picture books, Valerie writes a Monthly Memo for teachers that she publishes on Twitter, and she has been published in The National Writing Project’s Quarterly (“The Family Writing Project Builds a Learning Community in Connecticut”) and NESCBWI News (“Microaggressions Don’t Feel ‘Micro’”). Recently, she had a poem accepted for publication by Cricket Media.
Valerie is a member of NCTE, SCBWI, the NESCBWI Equity and Inclusion Committee, the Authors Guild, the WNDB Mentorship Program, #12X12PB, 2020 Diverse Debuts, 20/20 Vision Picture Books, and a picture book critique group.
Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, going to the theater, and dancing.
*Successful Query Letter Included (;
This December, I signed with my agent, Samantha Wekstein at Writers House as an author illustrator. Here's the story of how I did it. The road was long and bumpy... but it led to a great place!
I can't believe I get to write my own one of these! *faints*
I read SO many "How I Got My Agent" posts while in the querying trenches. And I'm sure you have, too! Hopefully mine can give you some inspiration to "NEVER GIVE UP!", to "STAY POSITIVE", and all that jazz, because you for sure need to do all of that to stay sane in this industry.
It was thrilling to think that one day, I *could* be one of those people. It felt like an elite club - How did these writers possibly snag an agent?! What were their secrets? I had to know everything. It seemed that every writer had their own unique story: some won twitter contests, others cold queried, some, even, had connections in the business. My own (short version) explanation is simple: I attended a conference. The SCBWI NJ Conference to be exact. And that is how fate propelled me to connecting with my now agent.
My long version is well, much longer. During my first year of writing with the goal of being published, I committed a the cardinal sin; I queried WAY before I was ready. I mean like way, WAY before. Like before any agents eye's should've even made CONTACT with my work. At the time, I swore this wasn't the case. I worked hard on this book, surely all the warnings about querying too early didn't apply to me. I put enough time into this book. The third draft would be fine to send out. Boy, was I wrong.
I'm not going to share the actual book, but let's just say it was garbage. It rhymed. It was 800 words long. It featured rushed sample illustrations that I figured an art director would want it cleaned up anyway. It was about Zoo Animals! (So basic, right?) Basically, it had every no-no in the book.
As bad as the book was, the query was even worse! I researched agents, but I didn't research HOW to write a query. My final letter began with, Hello, my name is Korrie Harkins (my maiden name). *MAJOR CRINGE*
Form rejections came in hot. You know the ones: it felt like no human read my work. Nothing personal in the email back, besides, maybe, my name. And honestly, I deserved it.
Instead of doubling down on that book. I took a long hard, critical look at it. Instead of relying on memories of picture books from my childhood for comparisons, I started to study picture books that came out in the last year or two. I spent hours reading Query Shark. (If you're querying now, you should totally check it out.) I watched youtube videos on illustrating for kids. As much time as I spent actually writing and painting, I spent double the amount of time reading and researching.
Something clicked. Everyone has a book idea. Everyone can write (no doubt, some better than others). Everyone would LOVE to be a published author. But not everyone has the patience to tweak their book idea ten, twenty, THIRY times! Not everyone can write, only to rewrite again and again for weeks, months, YEARS! And finally, yes everyone would love to be a published author, but not everyone has the perseverance and the drive to be told NO over and over again and still be able to work towards that dream. Not everyone has the patience to do the NON-creative work that goes along with the art.
This was going to be harder than I thought.
After months of rewriting, redrawing, researching, and reading, I took a real step forward in my writing career; I signed up for the SCBWI NJ Summer Conference. June 2018.
I went and tried to absorb everything. I came back from the weekend inspired and motivated. I made writer friends for the first time and got to hear first hand what editors and agents were looking for. Conference goers were also given a list of editors and agents who were actively looking for new clients and those conference attendees would be pushed to the top of the agents' inbox. *GASP*
My manuscript was almost ready (for real this time) and with this new opportunity available, I pushed myself to finish it. My query knowledge was way beyond where it was the last time.
I sent out my queries a month after the conference. And this time, I wasn't getting form rejections. I got actual feedback and advice. I even got compliments on my art. I was on the right track!
**SUCCESSFUL QUERY BELOW***
Dear Ms. ****,
I am seeking representation for my illustrated picture book, Getaway Box. After researching agents and learning that you are interested in unique settings and represent genres from PB to YA, I felt that we would be a good match.
Cassie’s wailing baby brother is no longer a problem when a box takes her across land, sea, sky, and space to escape the sound. She learns that even though a quick getaway is sometimes necessary, you’ll always find your way back home.
GETAWAY BOX is 420 words and is geared towards 5-8 year olds. It explores the universal themes of siblings and growing up through imagination and adventure.
I am member of SCBWI and Julie Hedlund's 12x12 Picture Book Challenge. I am also an intern for Entangled Publishing’s YA imprint.
I have several other picture books available upon request and am currently working on a middle grade fantasy novel.
Thank you for considering my work. I have included my word doc. manuscript, and PDF dummy and samples.
(Looking back, I can see that it's not the perfect query letter. Some parts make me cringe. But it worked. *shrug* Live and learn, I guess.)
Summer turned into Fall and I had to assume that the unanswered queries were a "no." And that was ok! I would keep going!
I was actually in the middle of moving (driving) across the country, when my now-agent, Samantha, responded. As I'm sure you all do, I opened it expecting an "I'm sorry, no thank you." But instead, it said (summarized), "I love the concept... your text needs work.. if you're open to it, I'd love to help."
UMMMMM. WHAT!? This was the most positive response I had received so far. But what did it mean? I reached out to my online writing groups (12x12 Challenge and KidLit411 both have a great FaceBook groups) and together we established it must be, in one form or another, a R&R (revise and resubmit.)
I graciously accepted Samantha's help revising my text and art. I used her advice over the nest couple weeks to turn my manuscript into something I was ecstatic to say was mine. At this point, the fear of resubmitting was completely gone, I felt that even if Samantha did not want to represent me after this experience, my work was enough. I was truly proud of the outcome and grateful for her help.
When I emailed the updated manuscript back on a Friday afternoon, I literally held my breath when I pushed send. Minutes later she responded. She loved it and wanted to set up a call for Monday morning.
It was the longest weekend of my life.
The call led to an offer of representation, which I excitedly and stupidly, asked for a day or two to think about. (Samantha was super upfront and told me at least a week was more customary to let other agents know.) *Whoops* Did not play it cool.
I used the week to reach out to other agents to let them know I was offered rep. and a week later I emailed Samantha back and accepted her offer. Then, I popped a bottle of champagne and got back to work!
Right now, the picture book I queried her is out on submission to publishers. I plan to blog about that process soon!
Good luck to those querying now! Never give up. (: