New Jersey children’s author and editor Margery Cuyler is a longtime SCBWI member and treasure! Recently, we took a break with Margery to catch up on all her latest happenings in the kidlit world…
Margery Cuyler has written more than 50 picture books, including Skeleton Hiccups; Bullies Never Win; 100th Day Worries; Kindness Is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler; That’s Good! That’s Bad!, and most recently, Bonaparte Falls Apart and The Little Fire Truck. When asked about why she writes children’s books, Margery answers that she was raised by children, i.e. her seven older brothers (four of whom were first cousins who became like brothers when they moved in after their mother died) and one sister. Because of growing up in such a “young” household, she claims it’s easy to access the way she thought and felt as a five-year-old. In addition, the house was said to be haunted by a Hessian soldier, which is probably one reason some of her books are about skeletons and ghosts. She enjoys visiting schools, where she shares her books with her favorite people (children!) and discusses the process she undergoes when writing her books. Margery also worked as an editor and publisher in the children’s book industry for 45 years. She edited books by many beloved authors and illustrators, including Tomie dePaola, Glen Rounds, Eric A. Kimmel, Russell Freedman, Elizabeth Winthrop, and Jennifer Roy. She and her husband, the parents of two grown children, live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
NJ SCBWI: Congratulations on your upcoming releases. Can you tell us how each book came about?
MC: Bonaparte Plays Ball, which will be released in March 2020, is a sequel to Bonaparte Falls Apart, which was published in 2017 (and will appear in a paperback edition in fall 2020). Bonaparte is a skeleton whose bones keep coming loose. This causes him continual problems. In the first book, he’s reluctant to go to school, since he is convinced his classmates will make fun of him. His best friends, Franky Stein, Blacky Widow, and Mummicula, try out their own ideas for putting Bonaparte back together. None works, but in the end Bonaparte’s worries are assuaged when he makes friends with a pup who enthusiastically retrieves his loose bones. In the new book, Bonaparte is a jumble of nerves when he finds himself batting against The Mighty Aliens in the Weird Series. A team of bullies, they are formidable opponents. How Bonaparte manages to hold himself together when the bases are loaded shows that even a skeleton with loose bones can triumph in the end.
Both of these books, like so many of my others, started with the title. I thought “Bonaparte” would be a good name for a skeleton who has trouble keeping his bones intact. Once I developed the concept for the character, I was off and running. I wanted to not only tell a good story in both books (based on a problem-solution structure), but I also wanted to make sure both stories were visual. Will Terry, the illustrator, made a tremendous contribution, and I couldn’t have asked for a better artist. Emily Easton, my editor at Crown/Random House, was also the perfect editor for the second book, since she knew more about baseball than I did. She caught mistakes in the baseball game between The Little Monsters and The Mighty Aliens that were just plain embarrassing in the early drafts!
Snow Friends, scheduled for a fall 2020 release, has a very different history from any of my other titles. I wanted to write a graphic picture book that would have a comic-book style format. I love dogs, and for a long time I’d wanted to write about a boy and a dog who make new friends during a snowstorm. I didn’t feel the story had a very strong storyline, so I decided to try sketching it out without any words. That process helped me develop a plot with additional characters, but since I can’t draw, the storyboard that I’d created looked rudimentary and actually indiscernible. Will Hillenbrand had illustrated some of my earlier books, and I thought that perhaps we could collaborate if he were willing to flesh out the storyboard with more finished sketches. He lives in Cincinnati, so on a visit there, I contacted Will and asked if we could meet. He obliged, and when I presented the idea for Snow Friends to him, he resonated to it. My story had only two dogs in it, but he got this great idea of adding a third dog without giving it any dialog. It would simply be there in the artwork to provide more dimension to the story.
Once he sent me a few “finished” sketches and a couple of tweaks to my storyboard, I presented it to Christy Ottaviano, who had edited a number of my earlier books and who I regard as one of the best editors in the field. Will and I were very lucky that she understood the concept for the book right away and was willing to take it to an acquisitions meeting. She wanted me to add text, however, although I had conceived of the book as almost wordless. I trusted her advice so added a minimal amount of words, just enough to clarify and underscore what was transpiring in the sketches, and- hooray -the book was accepted!
The end result is a combination of full-page art and panels, so it’s not exactly illustrated in a comic-book format, but more of a hybrid. I’m sooooo happy with the final result, and think that kids who struggle with writing can use it as a springboard for storytelling, using pictures to tell a story if they’re the kind of child who has difficulty using words I hope I can create more books like this, but I have yet to find the right idea. I just LOVED working with both Will and Christy and Patrick, the art director, to realize what started out as a whisper of an idea. The final book is the result of a true collaborative effort.
NJ SCBWI: You are a prolific and beloved author. What’s the secret to such long-standing creativity and output?
MC: Thanks for the compliment. I’ve never had trouble coming up with ideas for new stories; the hard thing is to actually write them! Luckily, I’m in two different writers’ groups, so I get plenty of feedback from other picture-book professionals before I send a new manuscript to my agent. I’ve also had the good fortune of being a visual thinker, so picture books are a natural milieu for me. Still, I get plenty of rejections and have a large file of unpublished manuscripts. I think because I have an energetic imagination, I tend to be prolific, and therefore my work is uneven. It seems, though, that the strongest of my stories do eventually make their way into print.
NJ SCBWI: In addition to authoring your own stories, you continue to have a successful career as an editor. Can you share what you are currently up to editorially?
MC: I like participating in my two writers’ groups, as my editorial background comes in handy when I critique the stories that others write. I also work as a freelance editor for various publishers, but regularly act as an editorial resource for PJ Library. PJ Library is part of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and offers free books with Jewish content to families who sign up for their program. I encourage any interested authors to visit www.pjlibrary.org to discover more about what they do.
NJ SCBWI: Finally, what top pieces of advice would you give to other members based on your personal experiences.
MC: The children’s book industry is constantly changing, and while editors are more mindful of the marketability of a book, they’re always looking for good stories. Everything boils down to story, no matter what age level one is writing for. So think about what stories have captivated you and why. Did the characters help to drive the story? Was there enough suspense/conflict to make you keep reading? Was the authorial voice unique? With all this in mind, revise, revise, revise to make your story as strong as possible. And, if you grow discouraged because you haven’t landed a contract, persevere. Don’t give up. Get your manuscript out to as many editors as possible. You have to believe that eventually, you’ll connect with just the right editor.
Thanks, Margery, for sharing your wisdom and journey with us! For more about Margery, visit her website: http://www.margerycuyler.com