The Backstory: ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME
Today I am thrilled to welcome Matt Forrest Esenwine to The Backstory to discuss the inspiration behind ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME (Beaming Books, 2021) co-authored with Charles Ghigna and illustrated by Andrés F. Landazábal. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Matt over the past year and he is one of the most gracious authors in the kidlit community. Keep reading to learn all about his latest book, hear some great advice, and get in on one of the two giveaways he is so generously offering.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME is a book about what our world was like before humans made their mark, and how we can still experience that world today.
A beautiful and important topic and portrayed so well through the pairing of your and Charles Ghigna's words with Andrés F. Landazábal's breathtaking illustrations.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
Back in 2013, Charles shared 4 short stanzas with me and asked how I thought they might be developed into a book. I considered some possible ideas and sent him my concept for a narrative along with 4 additional stanzas, so he could get an idea of where I was going. He loved it and suggested I finish up the rough draft! So I did and sent it off to him, he made a few tweaks, he sent it back to me and I made a few tweaks – and after a dozen or so revisions over the course of a year we had a polished manuscript we could start subbing!
This sounds like an incredible experience. I love hearing about how the process unfolded and the back and forth between you and Charles to bring this story to life.
How did you approach going from Charles’ initial stanzas to what is now ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
It did take a little while to think about what to do; his original stanzas became the first four pages of the book (“Once upon another time in a land of long ago…”) and the first two lines I added became the following two spreads (“There were no cities made of steel…”). But before I could add anything to what Charles had written, I needed to figure out where we were going. He had set up this beautiful scenario of looking at our past, but that in and of itself wasn’t a story - there needed to be a narrative, a direction, a journey. We needed to take the reader somewhere.
I’m fortunate to live in the woods - there are trees all around me, a pond across the street, a mountain behind, and a dirt road along one side of the property. So it occurred to me that if Charles and I were going to show what the Earth used to be like, we could easily show that much of it is still like that - if one is willing to look.
My favorite part of this story is the invitation it provides for readers to rediscover the wonders of nature that are most likely right outside their doorsteps. It is a reminder for the grownups sharing this story as much as it is for the children enjoying it, of all the beauty to be found in the natural world.
I know you and Charles Ghigna co-authored ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME. What was the process like of collaborating on this book and how did you two manage to maintain a consistent voice throughout the piece?
Collaboration was quite easy, actually, as we both have a great deal of respect for each other. No one ever said, “THIS is the way it has to be!” because that sort of collaboration falls apart pretty quickly. We both appreciated and fed off each other’s insights and suggestions. As for maintaining a consistent voice, that was probably due in large part to me making sure I wrote my initial lines to closely mirror his style; we couldn’t have his unique writing style bumping up against mine. So once we agreed on the narrative, I consistently wrote my lines in such a way that everything blended pretty well. And I have to say, it wasn’t all that hard to do, as our writing styles are similar in many ways.
This sounds like a perfect team! And through your shared open-mindedness and mutual respect, what an amazing final product you created.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
All around me! My kids, as well as those of others, are certainly a wealth of inspiration. My natural surroundings bring me a great deal of inspiration, as well. But a professional writer can’t wait to be inspired - one needs to create their own, too! For example, ask yourself, “What if?” What would happen if snails could fly? What would it be like if two siblings could have superpowers, but not at the same time? What would a tractor do on its day off? The ideas one gets may end up being of no use whatsoever, or they could be turned into the next picture book. Either way, you’re flexing your imagination muscles - and that’s time well-spent.
Great advice! I love the idea of the "What if?" game and the endless (possibly/hopefully ridiculous) ideas that can come from it. It is amazing when inspiration strikes like a lightning bolt, but those times are few and far between, not to mention often in the middle of the night, and it is nice to have a strategy to experiment with when inspiration is in short supply.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
The single most significant book that’s influenced my writing is probably Dorothy Aldis’ “The Secret Place and Other Poems”, which I received from my parents when I was a young child. It was my first book of poetry, and I loved it! However, it was only within the past 5-6 years that I’ve realized how much of an impact it had on my writing as far as style, substance, and tone. I have a lot of favorite poets and authors - Frost, Poe, Shelley, Asimov - but Aldis’ simple yet insightful work was what made me first fall in love with the power of words.
What are the must-haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
I don’t need much, other than time and quiet - neither of which I’ve had that much this past year due to homeschooling two young kids, ha! I have a computer that I use for my writing as well as my voiceover work, and if RhymeZone.com or Thesaurus.com aren’t working, I wing it!
I couldn't agree with you more, though I think you've identified the two most elusive items a parent can hope for. Maybe, just maybe, this crazy year of homeschooling will prompt some inspiration so when that time and quiet finally appear, you will be bursting with stories.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
As Jane Yolen and many others have said, Do. The. Work. Write, revise, submit, network, market, whatever you need to do to keep yourself moving forward. Although I’ve been writing most of my life and had many poems published in literary journals and such, I didn’t make a concerted effort to be published in children’s literature until 2010 - so the fact that I have 12 books out or under contract and more than 30 children’s poems published speaks more to the importance of hard work and perseverance than anything.
I compare my writing career to soccer. I’m on two indoor soccer leagues, and I’m never the best player on the field - but I’m always trying to move the ball forward, running, passing, blocking, doing whatever I can to get a win. So whether it’s writing or playing soccer, whatever I lack in talent I try to make up for in hustle!
By the way, the submission process for ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME was the hardest part...the manuscript went through more than 25 editors and agents before Naomi Krueger at Beaming Books picked it up in early 2019. So consider it a lesson in tenacity: 8 years, more than a dozen revisions, 25+ submissions. That’s why established authors always tell you to never give up!
First off, as a fellow soccer player, I have to say I love your analogy. This writing game is not for the faint of heart and you are a testament to the power of hard work and hustle. I also really appreciate how your list of doing the work extends beyond write and revise to include submit, market and network. There is so much to being a writer and you never know where or when the payoff will come, as displayed by Once Upon Another Time's 8-year journey to publication.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
I have a new picture book coming out this October, I AM TODAY (POW! Kids Books), from the same publisher that published DON’T ASK A DINOSAUR. It’s about a young girl who sees an injustice and doesn’t want to wait to make a difference. We adults are always telling our kids they are “the Future” - but why can’t they be “Today?”
I also have a super-exciting, career-changing poetry project coming out either next year or 2023...that I can’t tell anyone about! At least...not yet. (Yikes! How do I stay mum about this??) But once an illustrator is nailed down, I’ll be sharing the news everywhere!
And by the way, if anyone is in the Ohio area this fall, I hope you’ll consider attending the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival at Youngstown State University Oct. 7-8. I’ll be presenting a talk titled, “Loose Narratives, Tight Language: Crafting a Non-Traditional Picture Book” using ONCE UPON, FLASHLIGHT NIGHT, and I AM TODAY as example texts. It’s the first I’ve been invited to present here, so I’m extremely eager to attend and take everything in!
Great things happening for you and I couldn't be happier to continue watching your success. I AM TODAY sounds wonderful and I will be eagerly waiting for your super-exciting news!
Where can people connect more with you?
Matt thank you so much for joining us today and giving us the scoop on ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME.
And readers be sure to check out ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME (Beaming Books, 2021) by Matt Forrest Esenwine & Charles Ghigna, illustrated by Andrés F. Landazábal.
Matt is generously offering two giveaways! The first, a copy of ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME, and the second, a rhyming pb critique.
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ABOUT MATT FORREST ESENWINE
Before he found his calling as a children’s author, Matt Forrest Esenwine spent a good part of his life writing poetry, which was published in various national journals and anthologies including the Donald Hall tribute, Except for Love (Encircle, 2019). Then his debut picture book, Flashlight Night (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2017), received a Kirkus starred review and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the Best Books for Kids 2017 – and he never slowed down! Matt has 11 other books to his credit, and his children’s poetry can be found in anthologies like The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry (National GeographicChildren’s Books, 2015) and Construction People (Wordsong, 2020), chosen by Kirkus as one of the Best Picture Books of the Year, as well as “Highlights for Children” magazine. Connect with Matt and order personally-signed books at MattForrest.com.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.
A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.
While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Flannery Literary.