Jen Lynn Bailey: THIS IS THE BOAT THAT BEN BUILT
Jen Lynn Bailey, author of This is the Boat that Ben Built, shares her path to publication.
Hi Jen and congratulations on your new book This is the Boat that Ben Built. Thank you for being a guest on my blog and sharing your path to publication. The kidlit community has an amazing ‘pay it forward’ attitude and your story could provide the nugget of information that could help catapult another’s career. Plus, an opportunity to win a copy of your book!
Purchase link: https://pajamapress.ca/book/this_is_the_boat_that_ben_built/
First off, please share information about your latest book.
My debut picture book is called This is the Boat that Ben Built. It is illustrated by Maggie Zeng and will be published on March 15, 2022 with Pajama Press. It’s a humorous fictional exploration of a northern river ecosystem with an intrepid young boatsman, and it includes non-fiction backmatter about the ecology and key species found in that ecosystem. In this story, young Ben sets out to explore the river equipped with a sturdy boat, some sample-collection gear, and his scientific curiosity. Along the way he meets a black bear taking a swim, a moose all wobbly and slim, a goose with a gorgeous grin, and a heron all proper and prim…but things really start happening after the owl HOOs loudly on a whim.
I’ve already fallen in love with your lyrical writing style!
What was your inspiration for this book?
I was first inspired to write this book because of other cumulative stories I loved like The Napping House by Audrey Wood (illustrated by Don Wood) and Simms Taback’s version of This is the House that Jack Built. I also love hiking near and boating on bodies of water, so I started thinking about a comical chain of events that might happen on or around a river. The story started out as This is the Cabin that Ben Built, but over time I realized that the focal point should be on the river, not the cabin, and the story took shape.
The river setting sounds perfect and provided various channels for adventure, I am sure! (see what I did there, wink wink)
Many kidlit creators are teachers, librarians, etc. What is your background?
Great question, and, you’re right, I am among the teacher kidlit creators! I am a certified elementary school teacher in Ontario. I taught Core French to grades 4-8 and science to grade 6 students for a couple of years. Later I worked as a professor with writers in the Professional Writing Program at Algonquin College. I also taught adults and children how to write their own picture books at a local art school.
I additionally have a Bachelor of Science in Integrated Science Studies (environmental sciences and psychology), and I had the opportunity to participate in several food chain and environmental contaminant studies during my time in and after that program. I studied writing for children at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) and I got my Master of Fine Arts in 2013. Now I work at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, focusing on supporting science promotion programs.
They always say “write what you know” sounds like you took that to heart!
Are you part of a critique group? If so, how did you find your group?
Yes! I have been a part of several critique groups, including one for rhyming picture book writers. I found my current critique group in a bit of an odd way: there’s a contest called the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Writing for Children Competition here in Canada, and I was longlisted in the picture book and early reader category back in 2019. I noticed that two other writers from my hometown of Ottawa were among those longlisted. Through a series of fortunate events we connected in hopes of continuing to grow our craft together, and have been meeting regularly ever since.
I am also so fortunate to have other writers with whom I exchange manuscripts more casually. Some are good friends from VCFA, and others I’ve met at workshops and conferences. If you click with someone and their writing, I recommend seeing if they might be open to that kind of more casual critiquing arrangement!
Have you attended any writing conferences or workshops? If so, which do you recommend?
Oh yes, I love writing conferences and workshops. (Sidenote: I’m really thankful for the flexibility and affordability of virtual events!) For conferences, I would recommend CANSCAIP if you are a writer in Canada, and local/regional SCBWI gatherings no matter where you are located. I was also able to go to a picture book intensive at The Writing Barn in Austin, TX, thanks to an Emerging Creator grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. I connected with one of my critique partners there and was also introduced to a number of writers, editors, and agents. It was there that I also learned about the picture book group 12x12. I highly recommend joining that community for ongoing support and learning opportunities.
I second all of these resources…well I don’t live in Canada so I don’t have experience with CANSCAIP, but I have no doubt they are fantastic.
What is the best piece of advice you received about writing and the publishing world?
The first is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Be persistent and patient. Play the long game.
The second goes with it: remember that there are many things beyond our control in this industry. The only thing you can control is your writing. Keep your focus there.
I love that last part. It is easy to become overwhelmed with all that is out of a writer’s control, staying focused on writing is essential.
Do you have an agent? If so, what made you decide to query that particular agent?
I recently signed with agent Lori Steel of Raven Quill Literary Agency. I decided to query Lori because I had a very good feeling that we had a similar aesthetic. She completed the Picture Book Intensive at VCFA, so I knew she had a deep love of picture books. Like me, she also had a background in education. I was looking for someone who loves lyrical language, and her bio on the Raven Quill website emphasized that this was something she was drawn to. She also loves stories with heart, and (again, like me!) she believes that stories have the ability to affect change and impact young lives. I was so pleased that my hunch was right!
Where do you find agents and/or editors to submit to?
In Canada many authors publish without an agent; there are many publishers you can query directly. I found appropriate publishers to query by reading a lot of Canadian picture books to get a sense of the kinds of stories each publisher was acquiring, and by getting master lists of Canadian publishers from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre.
When I decided I’d like to get an agent, I signed up for QueryTracker and used their search function to narrow down my options. I researched the agents that came up and if they seemed like a good fit, I queried them. I also took good notes at webinars and conferences where I heard agents speak about what they were looking for and I tried to match my stories to their tastes when querying.
Your research skills are on point!
Do you know how many rejections you received before hearing that longed for “yes!”?
I queried five publishers over the course of about 7 years before getting a “yes” for This is the Boat that Ben Built. I queried 15 agents before getting a “yes” from Lori.
How were you notified that your manuscript had been accepted?
I got an email out of the blue from the publisher at Pajama Press. I was not expecting it at all because about a year earlier the book went to acquisitions and I was told that it wasn’t a go, but that they would keep it on file. There are so many things in publishing that you have to wait on, so when something wonderful comes out of the blue that you weren’t even waiting for, it’s a real treat!
Those new to the industry are often surprised to find out that the author does not choose the illustrator in traditional publishing. If you are not the illustrator, did you have input on who the publisher chose and/or did you see any of the illustrations during concept phases?
I did not! It was a complete (and beautiful) surprise when I saw Maggie Zeng’s illustrations at the final approval stage.
They are beautiful!
Thank you for sharing a bit of your journey. One final question, what do you love about children’s books?
I love the theatre of a children’s picture book – how it is a story world that children and the adults in their lives can immerse themselves in and explore in an intentional moment together.
I agree! Thank you for sharing your journey. I wish you the best of luck as you continue on the path to publication, and I look forward to seeing more of your books on library and bookstore shelves.
Thank you for the opportunity!
Jen Lynn Bailey is a children’s author from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Her debut picture book This is the Boat that Ben Built (illustrated by Maggie Zeng) was published by Pajama Press in March 2022. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has reviewed children’s books for Quill & Quire, the National Reading Campaign, and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Book News.
Jen also holds a Bachelor of Science in Integrated Science Studies from Carleton University (environmental sciences and psychology), and a Bachelor of Science in Education from Martin Luther College. She works for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada where she combines her love of science, education, and writing by supporting science promotion programs. When Jen isn’t writing she enjoys knitting, reading, hiking, and kayaking, and sometimes getting muddy at the pottery studio. Jen is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency. Visit her online at www.jenlynnbailey.com.