Elizabeth Verdick’s picture book Peep Leap
was published this past March by Amazon Children’s Publishing (formerly Marshall Cavendish). She will graduate from the MFAC program this July. For more information on Elizabeth and her writing, check out her website.
Please describe the book in under 50 words.
In this illustrated picture book, ten little wood ducklings must leap from their nest to the pond below. Duckling Ten is scared to take the plunge—until his family helps him to count down from ten and find his confidence.
Would you tell us a bit about the story’s development?
I was inspired to write this story after going on a field trip with my son’s kindergarten class to the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis. We saw a display of baby wood ducks making the leap from their nest in a tree to the pond below, where the mother duck waited. I began writing the story the same day. Up to that point, I’d been fortunate to have many nonfiction books published for kids of all ages, from toddlers to teens. I
didn’t really know how to write a story, though.
I was very lucky to have received the Shabo Award from the Loft Literary Center and the Martha Weston Grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, opportunities that helped build my confidence as a writer of fiction. Still, I had much to learn! I took writing classes at the Loft and learned about the Hamline MFA program. All the while, I kept turning back to my story of the little wood duckling who was scared to make the leap. I probably wrote a hundred versions of this story! Finally, I figured out how to make it into a counting book that rhymed, and the words began to fall into place.
A month before I started at Hamline, I was offered a contract for Peep Leap from Marshall Cavendish, which was subsequently bought by Amazon Children’s Publishing. Writing the story was a leap, and so was starting school at Hamline. I’m very grateful to have had such amazing opportunities.
How did it come to the attention of its editor?
I found a local agent after attending the Loft Literary Center’s Children’s Lit. Conference. She helped me to place the manuscript.
What research was involved?
I learned all about wood ducks, which was part of the fun. I have a new appreciation for these wonderful creatures. I learned the ropes of writing picture books by reading Anne Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books. (Of course, once I got to Hamline, I learned tons more about writing picture books!) I joined a critique group and wrote, wrote, wrote. It’s almost embarrassing how many drafts I went through to create a story with so few words. But with picture books, it’s all about making every word count.
Did you ever workshop this story at Hamline?
No, it was already with the editor by that point. But I did read the manuscript to my colleagues when we were first getting to know one another during first semester.
What was your critical thesis on?
I explored unusual plots in award-winning middle-grade novels, including When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and Holes by Louis Sachar. Both of these books have hard-to-follow plots, and I read them not only with a great sense of suspense but also a strange feeling of “How is the author doing this?!” The moment I finished the books, my impulse was to start again from page one to figure out what really happened and what I’d missed in my first read. The plots are like story puzzles—I wanted to understand how the “puzzle-makers” did what they did.
What was your creative thesis?
My thesis includes two picture books and chapters from a middle-grade novel. One picture book is a dog’s-eye view of the poet Emily Dickinson. I’ve also written a picture book about a fun-loving cub who does NOT want to stop and take a bath, no matter how dirty he may be or how much his mama pleads. My middle-grade novel is about a boy with autism who has special gifts that surface when his family moves in with his eccentric grandmother on a big old piece of wooded land she calls the Sanctuary—here, things aren’t always what they seem. My goal is to write a fantasy story in which the central character is identified as autistic but is so much more than that.
Did you discover and fall in love with any books while in the MFAC program?
Too many to count! I rediscovered some classics and was introduced to new authors, poets, stories, and genres. I’ve discovered things I never knew about writing and the business of publishing. I’ve seen firsthand just how dedicated, giving, and humble many children’s writers are. I am in awe of people who write and illustrate books for kids. My head is full of the many things I’ve learned in this program! It has been an unforgettable experience.
Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are. When do you share a piece of writing?
I am involved in two separate writing groups, and I have a trusted “writing partner” who reads my rough and/or finished work. I have an agent who is not afraid to tell me, “This isn’t quite ready yet—get back to work.” I rely on my sixteen-year-old daughter’s opinion, too. I prefer to work on my writing alone for many drafts, until I feel that the material is truly ready for someone else’s eye. That said, I grew more comfortable with showing new, raw work to my Hamline advisors and workshop members. The beauty of this MFA program is the way it honors a writer’s work and intentions—the critiques help you bring out the best in your writing.
Can you briefly describe your writing life? How has it changed since you graduated?
My writing life today is still focused on Hamline packets, for now anyway. I’m working on my creative thesis, while jotting down ideas for future stories. I’m promoting Peep Leap
and some baby board books that have recently been published. I’m looking forward to writing a follow-up to my book The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (this time focusing on teens). I work on many different projects on any given day.
What are you working on now?
Graduating! Although, to be honest, I’d be happy with one more semester. This program goes fast! I’ll miss it so much.
What would you like to say to current or prospective students?
I’m so, so glad I joined this program. I was already published in the category of nonfiction, but I had tons to learn about writing fiction. I felt as though I was starting from scratch, learning to write in a whole new way—but thanks to my Hamline advisors, I was given essential guidance, tools, and knowledge. I learned to trust the process, even when it was messy.
Hamline workshops give you a chance to show your work to a group of thoughtful, questioning peers who have your best interests at heart.
The lectures offer insights about writing, rewriting, and finding a “home” for your work. It’s heartening when you hear from successful writers that they too have experienced the frustrations and rejections that are part of this business. But these writers will also tell you about times when their work touched a child or maybe even changed someone’s life, if only for a moment. That’s what’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do here. That’s what makes the journey worth every step.