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Writing Snacks talks to Sarah C. Campbell


Snacks: You have done such an amazing job marrying two of your passions:

writing and photography. Tell us a little about how that came to be.

 

Sarah: I have been taking pictures since I was a teenager. My mother is a photographer and, when I was in high school, she taught me to shoot black and white film, develop it, and print the photographs. I spent many hours in a closet modified into a darkroom. I studied journalism in college and I got mixed messages from faculty about the wisdom of displaying to editors a skill for both photography and writing. At newspapers at the time, the duties were very clearly divided between photo departments and news departments. I understand why this is the case. It is very difficult to report and to photograph breaking news at the same time. However, as I moved into freelancing I came to understand that editors who are acquiring content are very happy to do one-stop shopping – if the quality is high for both writing and photography.

 

When I began writing for the children's market, I studied the photo credits in magazines I was interested in publishing in and noticed that at least some of the time, the writers provided the photographs. My chief concern was being able to provide photographs at the quality necessary for printing.

 

I made the transition to digital photography with a certain amount of reluctance. I was happy with my camera and I was able to get my film processed to negatives and digital files. Once I took the plunge I got hooked in a big way on the convenience of digital images. I felt as if I were back in the darkroom cropping, adjusting exposure, and having theSCCwolfsnail.jpg freedom to print custom-sized prints.

 

My first digital camera was a point-and-shoot and, though processing was fun and easy, I felt handicapped in my shooting. I invested in a digital single lens reflex (what I call a “real” camera) and I have never looked back. All of this was happening around the time I was trying to sell a story about wolfsnails. The images that accompanied the article I sold to /Highlights/ were taken with my digital point-and-shoot, but I knew I wanted to illustrate my picture book manuscript with a totally different kind of photograph. I bought a macro lens to fit my camera and began taking up close, larger-than-life photographs of the wolfsnails. I brought a set of them to a Southern Breeze SCBWI conference and had them critiqued by an art director. When he said they met the quality requirements, I gained the confidence to pair my manuscript with my own photos.

 

Snacks: Do you submit photos individually to magazines or strictly with your written submissions? What advice would you give to someone wanting to start doing photography for magazines?

 

Sarah: I have done both. In the case of the stand-alone photographs I've done, I was approached by an editor who needed some images for a regular feature that was written in-house. My most favorite work now, however, is the books.

I get the sense from magazine editors that photographers who can provide high quality images via digital transmission in a timely manner are much in demand. However, most of these same editors begin their relationships with photographers by seeing a printed image: either via snail mail submission or through a conference critique.

I think a great way to break in would be to submit an entire package: writing and photographs. Then, make it clear that you are willing to provide stand-alones as well.

 

Snacks: Your teaching experience is impressive. Tell us what makes a successful presentation and school visit. (And please brag about your many appearances!)

 

Sarah: I have been hanging out in elementary school classrooms for nearly a decade, volunteering at first in my own sons' classes and moving into paid artist visits. I have been told that I am a “born” teacher. SCCvisit.jpgThis makes sense since most people in my extended family are teachers of one kind or another. I approach my presentations in classrooms like performances. I try to do two seemingly contradictory things: I pump up my energy level so I come across as a performer, i.e. different from their everyday experience, and I connect with them as individuals. I get down on my knees to look them in the eye, I ask questions of individuals in the audience, and I affirm their ideas.

 

In my artist residencies, I work with teachers to match up my instruction with language arts, reading, science, and math curriculum benchmarks. It gives me a lot of pleasure to help kids discover the joys of creating photographs and stories.

 

Snacks: What did you find most challenging about getting your first book published?

 

Sarah: Finding a marketable idea and identifying a potential publisher. It all seemed overwhelming when I first started writing for the children's market. The best thing I did was to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and start attending Southern Breeze regional conferences.

 

I sent a bunch of stories to various magazines and publishers – especially those whose editors I met at Southern Breeze conferences. All were rejected, with the occasional personal note.

 

Once the wolfsnails dropped into my lap, I knew I had a marketable idea. First, I sold a story and photographs to “Highlights for Children”. As we were going through the final edits for the article, I mentioned to my editor, Andy Boyles, that I had written a picture book manuscript. He asked me to send it to him; he had just become an editor at Boyds Mills Press, too. Andy was the only editor to see it. I went to him again when I got the idea for “Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature”.

 

I feel as if I have had a very charmed career in children's publishing. “Wolfsnail” was very well received and I'm getting good feedback from people who've had an early look at “Growing Patterns”. I have begun serious work on two more projects. I want to keep doing this as long as I can.

 

Snacks: We can’t wait for your new book “Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature” to come out. Tell us how you developed the concept.

 

Sarah: Like many people I had heard about the Fibonacci sequence in various contexts, but I got really interested after reading about the connection between the Fibonacci sequence and nature. When I showed an art director an advance SCCgrowing.jpgcopy of “Wolfsnail” during a portfolio critique, she asked what I'd like to do next. I told her I'd love to do something that would examine patterns in nature. She agreed it would be interesting and the idea really clicked for me. I did a quick bit of market research, got my hands on some books about the Fibonacci sequence, and then wrote a proposal for Andy. The final concept didn't come for more than a year. I had taken a bunch of the photographs and made a few attempts at the story when I started working in earnest on the design. The final concept came to me as I played around with a storyboard. The visual narrative builds in the same way as the Fibonacci sequence. For me, it is a great example of the way a picture book works. The words and pictures have to work together. Neither is sufficient alone.

 

Snacks: What one piece of advice would you give to those who want to tackle writing non-fiction for kids?

 

Sarah: Do extensive research, including direct observation (this will provide the details that set your work apart). Nonfiction writing should be clear and concise. I find that I can't write clearly when I have a fuzzy understanding of a concept. Find experts who will answer your questions and read your work in manuscript form.

 

Snacks: What are your favorite writing snacks?

 

Sarah: I toast almonds and mix a handful with about the same number of Ghirardelli 60 percent cocoa chocolate chips.

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